The Relationship Between Dowry and Poverty

By Chandrika Bose, MATS Law School, Raipur

  Editor’s Note: As stipulated in the Dharmasasthra, Kanyadan is a meritorious act and it is not complete until a bridegroom is given Dakshina while performing and solemnizing the ceremony. However, in the course of time, the voluntary element associated with Varadakshina during Kanyadan has disappeared and the coercive element has crept in. It has taken deep roots not only in the marriage ceremony but also extended to the post-marital relationship. The concept of dowry has therefore evolved into a completely different notion than tradition once prescribed.

Research has shown that moderately poor families struggle to raise dowry through several different mechanisms, including taking multiple loans from micro finance institutions or by selling their assets. In comparison, the extreme poor adopt a different set of coping mechanisms such as child labour, informal loans on high interest etc. The fact that it is related to capability approach and capability deprivation in a broader sense cannot be neglected. To gain a better understanding of the same, the study of relationship between dowry and poverty therefore become essential.

Introduction

No doubt, that the women’s are at helm of life and enjoy equal liberties with men in every sphere of life, yet there is a connotation of the feeling of hatred towards them. Inspite of the fact that they enjoy prestigious positions in government offices, educational institutions, business organizations, the armed forces etc. they are the victims of many evil practices in the society.

When we talk about the evil practices the first thing which has to be taken into consideration is that -it has evolved from the society. The same society which we are part of! Dowry has become a major social evil against women and it is spreading as fast as a communicable disease in the society. Day and night we hear and read news of one or more young women burnt to death because she could not bring sufficient amount of dowry with her. There seems to be no end to the practice of torture of young brides because of failure to bring dowry wherein they are forced to commit suicide. This is the problem of dowry and in this project I will basically deal with how practice of giving and taking dowry leads to poverty and vice-versa.

Law alone cannot help in this respect; to curb such social evil, social effort is required. Only a determined and co operative effort can solve this problem.For every single reason government cannot be blamed, there are anti-dowry laws but it is time for “We the people” to take action. Each one has to take up this fight by creating awareness in the family, communities and society at large. Constant and alert actions against people practicing this evil will slowly help in getting rid of this evil.

 What is dowry?

If we talk about dowry it is nothing but exchange of wealth between the bride’s family and the groom’s family. Scholars have loosely defined today’s notion of dowry to be “movable or immovable property that a bride’s father or guardian gives to the bridegroom, his parents, or his relatives as a condition to the marriage, and under duress, coercion or pressure”, or “cash, consumer goods, and jewellery that a wife brought with her to her husband’s household.”

The concept of dowry has evolved into a completely different notion than tradition once prescribed. A brief background on the evolution of dowry will help us spotlight on the modern status of women in Indian society and the society’s efforts to control this status. No blame game is going to help at this juncture. The problems must be identified and a solution has to be worked upon positively!

Origin of Dowry

 The system of dowry had its origin in the Vedic period which began only as a formal rite in the institution of marriage. Among the various types of Hindu marriages, ‘Kanyadan’ played a significant role in the evolution of the dowry system. During Kanyadan, a bride was given as a gift to a bridegroom by her father. As stipulated in the Dharmasasthra, Kanyadan is a meritorious act and it is not complete until a bridegroom is given a Dakshina while performing and solemnizing the ceremony of Kanyadan.

 However, in the course of time, the voluntary element associated with Varadakshina during Kanyadan marriage has disappeared and the coercive element has crept in. It has taken deep roots not only in the marriage ceremony but also extended to the post-marital relationship.

 Thus what was originally intended as a token Dakshina for the bridegroom has now gone out of proportions and has assumed the modern nomenclature ‘dowry’. Considering its ramifications and the impact it created in the society, the dowry system has grown into a greedy monster, which is constantly looking out for hapless preys especially from feminine gender. [i]

Another scholar explains the origins of dowry exchange as a response to Muslim invasions and Muslim rule that occurred during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Hindus among higher classes may have started to implement more customs protective of their culture such as the caste system, to keep marriage confined within their communities. During an economic downturn after invasions, it became difficult to find bridegrooms who were financially established. As a result, those who were well off were the object of a fierce bidding war by prospective brides’ families. As a result, dowry became the dominant feature in negotiations of arranged marriages, because bridegrooms would demand them.

Impact of dowry

 Today situation is such that the fact is before fixing a marriage or engagement, dowry is demanded as a precondition. When the demand for dowry is not accepted, a disagreement is reached and the marriage proposal gets foiled even at the preliminary stage. The personality of a bride or bridegroom, their willingness for the proposed marriage etc which are normally considered as the essential prerequisites of a marriage take the backstage.

 Another salient feature of the dowry system is that it is always associated with the status of the parties to the marriage. In particular, in the arranged marriages, the bridegroom’s parents demand a sum in cash or in kind, in the form of jewelry, material things like household articles, car and house etc.

 The irony is such demands are made befitting the economic status of the bridegroom’s family or the position held by the bridegroom or the actual amount that he earns as salary or in his business or profession. If the agreed amount of cash or kind is not paid before the marriage, it even leads to the termination of the contract of marriage and the marriage is not solemnized.

The system of dowry has also become a primary source of post-marital disputes. When the agreed amount of dowry is not paid or it is partly paid and partly promised, sometimes the marriage is solemnized and even consummated. When the bride’s family is not able to fulfill the promise of dowry due to poverty, the conflict begins at the marital home, in which the entire family members of the bridegroom is pitted against the bride. Going further, the bride, for no fault of her, is verbally abused in a vituperative language, assaulted or violently beaten by her husband, in extreme cases the bride is strangled to death or put to flame using petrol or kerosene. The bride is not spared even when she is pregnant or a mother of a baby.

Unable to fulfill the dowry demands of the marital home, the bride is mostly driven back to her parent’s home. Somehow or other, the bride’s parents should fulfill the demands for dowry, so as to ensure a better future for their daughters at their marital homes. As a result, the bride’s parents become heavily indebted and wallow in poverty or struggle to have their both ends meet throughout their life.

 Sometimes, it so happens that hapless men are being harassed by women misusing the provisions of Dowry Prohibition Act, preferring false complaints against their husbands. Hence, courts have begun to consider such cases sympathetically and even issued instructions accordingly. If a woman prefers a complaint against her husband on the ground of harassment for dowry, the police authorities need not automatically arrest him unless a prima facie case is made out on enquiry. But this situation mainly occurs in the rural areas, as uneducated women over there are not aware of enforcement of any legal rights and therefore suffer to a large extend. Thus the dowry system creates a chaos in the society, by promoting violence and strife among the members of the families and thereby dismembering the families.

Today’s society: marriage becomes a business

Dowry harassment today has become a money making scheme for bridegrooms and their families. Modern urbanization, industrialization and consumerism have created a society where money and status have become central to the negotiations for marriage. British rule introduced the concepts of monetization, and materialism to Indian society. Historians suggest that the introduction under British rule of a capitalist economy resulted in the imposition of heavy land taxes so that families were pressured to find large sums of cash or lose their lands.

The “market” for brides and grooms is often reflected in newspapers which abound with advertisements of potential spouses possessing “eligibility and social prowess, usually using their caste as a bargaining chip”. Professionals such as doctors, engineers and accountants, especially ones living abroad in developed countries, expect the highest amount of dowries because educated men are the ticket to high social status and wealth. Yet a paradox occurs when educated women are married. The more educated the woman, the more dowries the husband can extract from her because she is viewed as less able to focus on household matters. In many cases, she is expected to give her entire pay check to her new family and to bring even more money from her parents as dowry. This cultural paradox reflects the tension between patriarchal norms and the resistance to women’s struggling rise in economic status.

Dowry demands from bride’s families are never ending list which turns as an obligation for them to fulfill not only in the middle class or upper middle class but the worst condition can be seen in the poor section of the society. When a female child is born in the family, particularly in Northern India, the faces of all the members of the family fall. The very expression of joy disappears from their visage. It looks as if they had come under the ellipse to sorrows and miseries. Even the mother who has given birth to the child looks sullen and sometimes becomes the object of taunts and ironical remark of her in-laws.

Do you know why it happens so? It is because of the dowry system prevalent in our society. The very moment a female child is born, the picture of dowry with the demand of a huge amount of money in cash or kind comes before their eyes. Now people have gone a step further to avoid this unhappy situation. They go to nursing homes for pre-natal determination of the sex of the unborn child, resulting in undesirable practices. Whether a woman wishes to or not, she has to follow the dictates of her in-laws.

All these things are happening simply because of the dowry system which is a stigma on the fair name of the Indian society and a curse for women. Dowry is generally found in societies with more complex societal structures. These societies appear to exhibit substantial socioeconomic differentiation and class stratification

What is poverty and how is it related to the dowry system?

Poverty is a state in which people are unable to enjoy the basic necessities of life i.e. food clothing and shelter. The distinguishing feature of chronic poverty is extended duration in absolute poverty. Therefore, chronically poor people always, or usually, live below a poverty line, which is normally defined in terms of a money indicator (e.g. consumption, income, etc.), but could also be defined in terms of wider or subjective aspects of deprivation. This is different from the transitorily poor, who move in and out of poverty, or only occasionally fall below the poverty line.

It is not uncommon for development practitioners to compare the impacts of dowry with those of cyclones, floods and other forms of natural disasters. Although dowry is not a natural and unpredictable incident, it is something that has become engrained into the culture of our country over period of time. The cycle of poverty is further entrenched through this continuing practice, which in turn is distorting the effectiveness of existing and continuing poverty reduction programmes.[ii]

It has been recognised that dowry in South Asia hinders women’s empowerment and can serve as a cause of violence against women. A recent study in Bangladesh highlights that dowries also have serious economic repercussions, with families identifying dowry payment as a leading cause of impoverishment. This policy brief also looks at the need for public policy aimed at ameliorating the negative social effects of dowry to take the economic consequences of unaffordable dowry into account, and dowry-focused policies should feature as part of broader poverty reduction strategies. There is a need to go beyond official policy and find innovative ways of addressing the negative socio-economic effects of dowry, both at the local and national levels.

Research cited dowry as the leading cause of poverty despite the in progress efforts of numerous NGOs to curb the practice. Dowry has been traditionally analysed as a part of expanding personal rights of women within the broader poverty agenda, however, further work is required to understand its linkages with extreme poor groups. This need for further understanding is gaining increasing importance as, over the last few years, the government, supported by donors, has undertaken a number of programmes tasked with eradicating extreme poverty.

These programmes can be, roughly, separated between distributing fixed assets to households or increasing awareness on individual rights and entitlements. Both of types of model attempt to improve household income generating capabilities and ultimately lift their beneficiaries out of poverty. These programmes have proved fruitful in the short-run, but a failure to seize the debilitating effect of dowry may lead to critical long-term implications. In rural areas, dowry is often the most important aspect of the marriage. Parents of young men and women spend a considerable amount of time negotiating the “right” amount before the start of the ceremony. Families struggle to raise this often large sum, as many people believe that it impossible to get married without dowry.

Research has shown that moderately poor families struggle to raise dowry through several different mechanisms, including taking multiple loans from micro finance institutions or by selling assets including land. In comparison, the extreme poor adopt a different set of coping mechanisms as by definition they have no land, limited assets, low levels of income and no access to micro-finance. The extreme poor are dependent on the humanity and charity of the local community, where dowry is collected through a number of mechanisms like high interest informal loans, and engaging in child labour.

Without stronger actions and efforts to mitigate dowry, programmes aiming to lift the extreme poor out of poverty may actually increase the vulnerability of households, with the potential to push them deeper into extreme poverty than ever before. Dowry is not a natural phenomenon, and we should not treat it like one.

Dowry, a widely practised social malaise, forces many families deeper into poverty and it is one of the main reasons behind violence against women, Education, economic empowerment of women, women’s equal rights to property and social awareness can help eliminate dowry system, they added. The study revealed that although dowry is illegal under the law, it is a widely practised social custom. It is one of the main reasons for child marriage, domestic violence, divorce and polygamy in the country. In rural Bangladesh, many families are forced to sell out valuable items and property or take loans with high interest rate to fulfil the dowry demands, which in many cases forces them deeper into poverty. Dowry demands have different forms such as money, valuables, property and promise of employment. The problem arises because -In our society, men are considered asset while women are considered as liability. As long as women remain burden in the eyes of everyone, the practice of dowry will continue.

Corruption, dowry, or poverty!

After 65 years of independence, millions of people are still not able to have a square meal a day. A lot of progress has been made but the fact still remains that we have too many poor people even now. Hence, poverty is affecting more than corruption and dowry and I feel that the root cause of this poverty is corruption. Otherwise, like many other countries, it should have been possible to eradicate poverty by now.

Early marriages and dowry system are entrenched problems of south Asian countries. According to a research “Dowry payments of more than 200 times the daily wage and costly medical expenses are major causes of this chronic poverty.”

The results of the research showed that illiterate people with less income had hard time escaping poverty because they had to take loans for marriages of their children and younger siblings. Though dowry system is illegal still it is practiced in rural areas, also in city areas. Moreover, medical expenses for the elderly members of family are also another cause for poverty in rural areas.  Government has encouraged enrolment of girls in school to end the practice of dowry system. On the basis of their research, the researchers have said that proper education, employment and health facilities could play vital role in alleviating poverty in families of rural areas.[iii]

Conclusion

Now it is very clear that dowry is strongly linked to women’s poverty. Poverty makes women more vulnerable. They remain dependent with an undignified status. The exchange of wealth in the form of dowry in a way turns women into a commodity.

Empowerment of women is the key to getting rid of dowry. Women can become successful in many fields if they get opportunities. In general, I think education plays a major role in ending dowry system. If girls are educated, they can be independent and early marriage and abuses from husband after marriage are also prevented. I believe education is the best dowry any parent can give to their daughters. To conclude, ending dowry system not only uproots an evil system from our societies but also assists in alleviating poverty.

Best education is the best dowry. Parents are advised to educate daughters the best as the time has changed and it is time that education has more value in the employment market and fields have been opened for women to become entrepreneurs. Amount of dowry may be invested for her secured future.

 Girl’s parents should help reporting Governments or concerned authorities about the dowry demand by groom parents. Marriage with such boys should be discouraged as demand of excessive dowry means they do not want girl but money this would result to extortion after marriage by torture. Besides arresting, blacklisting in communities of dowry extorters most essentials. Will help not only to discourage, will also help other girl parents to keep away from such people. [iv]

All dowry receipts and payments as dowry need to be recorded with marriage registration authority to help during unwanted incidents or separation. Girl’s parents should not hesitate to get registered of payments. Even in ancient societies was maintained of all transactions. It has been recognized that dowry hinders women’s empowerment and can serve as a cause of violence against women. A study highlights that dowries also have serious economic repercussions, with families identifying dowry payment as a leading cause of impoverishment there is a need to go beyond official policy and find innovative ways of addressing the negative socio-economic effects of dowry, both at the local and national levels.

When I connect the problem of dowry with the subjects of – law, poverty and development, it is related to capability approach and capability deprivation in a broader sense. In capability approach as it is believed that every individual’s primary goal is to achieve wealth, and dowry is a way of getting prosperity and wealth, it is immoral but still people choose this path for making quick money.In case of capability deprivation it is believed that one is deprived from his capabilities because of certain factors such as age, gender etc, being a women makes an individual deprived from his capabilities and every the if!

If she was given good education she would have generated income out of her capabilities, if she was forced to stop working or if she did not had any family pressure she would have generated income. If she was not a woman she would have generated income and would not have been deprived from her capabilities.

Simply by raising questions we cannot come up with solutions. The need for us is to understand that we must change our mentality with the changing society, a full stop should be put on such a social evil and we must take a step forward to bring a change in this static mentality.

Education is the solution I suggest for curbing dowry in our society.

Edited by Kanchi Kaushik 

[1] www.chronicpoverty.org

[2] http://archive.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=158956

[3] http://www.odi.org.uk/publications/5329-bangladesh-gender-dowry

[4] http://www.odi.org.uk/publications

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