The issue of dowries has long dominated the Indian wedding scene and despite the passage of time there seems to be no respite for girls born in below average income families. Parents who want to marry their daughters off are forced into making payments that is often beyond their means and a failure to do so often leads to abuse and other forms of mistreatment in the hands of husbands or in laws. In some parts of India and in certain communities’ dowry appears to be an accepted norm.
Approximately 8,000 deaths are recorded each year as being dowry related, some as a result of suicides and others as a result of abuse in the hands of husbands and in laws but it is fair to surmise that the figure is in reality much higher because many cases of abuse go unreported.
A lot of these women are educated, professional women, who are more than capable of bringing home a decent wage but that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in some communities because despite the fact that the wife is able to bring home a decent wage or contribute equally towards the household expenses, she is still required to make some sort of a lump sum payment prior to getting married either in terms of cash, jewelry, chattels or property in order to be bestowed with the title of a good daughter in law.
Sounds like a business? Well in some instances it is. In some communities the prevalent attitude seems to be that a boy can make demands prior to marriage and there are many instances where even when then the demands are met; the girl is still abused and mistreated and despite the passage of time and the advent of modern technology and the advances in many other fields there appears to be no escape for women born in lower income families.
Let’s go back to the basics. Is it illegal to ask for dowry in India? Well according to the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961, with the exception of Jammu and Kashmir, it is illegal to ask for dowry in India. The act goes on to define dowry as any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly prior to marriage.
However, it is not illegal for obvious reasons, to give gifts and these gifts could be gifts of cash, jewelry, chattels or property. The act itself isn’t entirely convincing and while it says that would-be grooms cannot demand items of value as a precondition to marriage it does not say anything about giving gifts and in all instances, it only becomes an issue if the aggrieved party makes or lodges a complaint. If no complaint is made then nothing else is ever said about the matter and even if the marriage breakdowns at a later date there is nothing to compel the husband to return any items of value that he received prior to the marriage.
Obviously, no one gets married or enters into the ceremony of marriage expecting it to breakdown but nothing is certain and there are many compelling stories that suggest that the law should somehow make these gifts returnable if the marriage breaks down.
However, the penalty for accepting dowry is quite steep and if convicted the accused can be jailed for a term that is no less than 5 years so the law does to some extent protect women but then again it is a matter of these women stepping up and lodging a complaint but in most instances, many of them just put it down to hard luck.
Likewise, parents can refuse to give dowry but in most cases most parents if they can afford it and some even if they can’t afford it agree because it is a social and cultural norm and a lot of families are just happy to marry their daughters off regardless of whether the daughter is happy or not.
Now I’m not saying that these marriages don’t work, they do, but it is a 50 – 50 chance. Some are lucky and others are not. There is nothing really wrong with arranged marriages as long as they don’t put any additional strain on girls and their families.
The way things stand at present, it is not only important to give a girl an education, but it is also important to make sure that there is enough left in the kitty for her wedding and that can be quite strenuous especially considering the fact that education is not cheap and a good college degree is quite costly. It is a vicious cycle that women in the subcontinent get trapped in.
Is the situation going to get any better in the near future? From all accounts no. With the exception of a handful of writers and the occasional rhetoric from aspiring politicians no one really seems to want to address the matter.