The blowout of the dowry system forced the government to take action in the middle of last century, introducing the Anti-Dowry Act in 1961 which outlawed the giving and receiving of dowries. After its introduction, the act received little support and was not strongly enforced, leading to a rampant and thriving illegal market for dowries.
Another flow on effect of the dowry system has been the practice of female infanticide and feticide. The birth of a daughter can be a cause of great concern for families, particularly those from poorer demographics, as they must then start to figure out how they will pay a dowry when it comes time for the daughter to marry. It is alleged that this concern leads partially to female infanticide and feticide in India, though exact figures relating to this are difficult to determine. According to 2011 census data, in the age group 0-6 years, there are 914 girls to every 100 boys in India. Figures calculated by the Toronto Globalist indicate that comparing this figure to the natural male/female birth ratio show that about three million girls are “missing” from actual population numbers, while recent studies show that girls in this age group have a much higher mortality rate due to , negligence or murder .
Often people do not realize the dowry system has repercussions in many different areas other than the obvious horrible one stated above. Given the fact that a girl's parents must provide a substantial dowry plus try to give her a college education or some form of formal education today, it is not surprising that the number of girl abortions are extremely high in India. Interestingly, India theoretically is a culture which places high value on females. The females of a family are the life-blood, the pride and honor of that family. It is a very contradictory situation to see such importance placed on females and then to see the abortion rates of female babies sky high. Most college-educated Indians I have spoken to, both male and female, stand in firm objection to the dowry system and see that the twisted form it has taken is responsible for the degradation of women. In these families, girl children are just as prized as boy children and parents are teaching their daughters of their own worth as a human being.
Of course, there is always that dark side. While these situations are becoming rarer, they still occur often enough to warrant some discussion on them. There are those families who will use the bride's dowry as their own. Often in these situations, the bride's dowry will be recycled for the groom's sisters' dowry. Sometimes, the groom's family uses the bride's dowry entirely for their own means and the bride does not benefit from it all. There have been horrible, true stories of the groom's family agreeing to one dowry and after the bride is married (and I might add, no longer a virgin) demanding more from the bride's parents. Threats of divorce are often used to entice the bride's parents to give more dowry. In a country where shame is brought down on the divorcee, parents of the bride will do whatever they can to save their daughters this shame. Occasionally, the threat of physical violence is used. There really is no way these type situations can end happily. Even if the bride's parents are able to scrape together more dowry, they will not be able to continue doing so and in the end the bride is either sent home in shame or sometimes killed in an "accident".
The giving of gifts or money (otherwise known as a dowry) to a groom on behalf of the bride’s family is common practice in India, a marital tradition which dates back centuries. The dowry buys into people’s pride and desire to “save face” and the system (and exactly what is given) has substantial consequences for families and women in general. The financial restraints a dowry can place on a girl’s family coupled with the increasing abuse of the tradition on the part of the groom or his family has seen public perception of dowry giving change, with the government now stepping in to regulate its practice.
But it doesn’t just come from above. There is a call on young people not to tolerate dowry giving and receiving practices when getting married. There are conflicting arguments as to what the solution here is. Education is imperative yes, though some state that it is within the more educated and literate areas of India that female infanticide and feticide numbers are the highest.
While the dowry system still exists in India today, its function has changed somewhat, becoming an unspoken mandate and being viewed these days as something of a bargaining chip when arranging marriages. The more educated a groom is, the more money his family can demand as a dowry. Parents start saving for their daughters’ dowries from birth, placing a financial burden on families of low socio-economic backgrounds.
The origins of the dowry system in India have been greatly debated. One theory is that historically parents of the bride nominally provided gifts such as jewelry and everyday household items to the bride which evolved over time to providing a sum of money to the groom’s family. Another, more patriarchal view, alleges that daughters were “given” away and that grooms were offered gifts (and eventually money) as somewhat of a bribe to ensure the fair treatment of the woman. The exact sum of money was dictated by the groom’s education and social standing, however its initial intention was to act as a safeguard should something happen to the groom in his lifetime rendering him no longer able to provide for his wife and eventual children.
The practice became commonplace during the Middle Ages, with fathers who were looking to ensure a strong family bloodline paying top price for grooms of good ancestry.
The underbelly of the dowry system revolves around the treatment of brides. Referred to as “bride-burning”, the act of maiming or even killing brides whose family cannot or will not meet a groom’s dowry demands is a worrying practice in India. The National Crime Records Bureau reports that in 2010 alone, there were 8,391 dowry-related deaths in the country, representing a 0.1% increase from 2009 and almost double the number of dowry-related deaths recorded . Only a third of all reported cases result in conviction of the offenders.
The most common form of use of the dowry is not meant to be dishonorable and is far more practical for many families. More often than not, the bride's dowry gets absorbed into the household for the greater good of the entire family. Perhaps a bride's dowry may help provide food for the entire family over a lifetime, or allow the purchase of a refrigerator. For many families, they do not see anything wrong in this sort of dowry absorption simply because it aids the bride as well. Furthermore, if the groom's family is better due to the dowry, the bride will enjoy a better life than perhaps her own mother did.
As you can see, the dowry system was something originally honorable in intention and provided for the independent wealth of the bride in a time when she was unlikely to work outside of the home. Like many customs and traditions, time can alter their original meaning and purpose. While the dowry system is still in place, it has become more of a "bride-price" system. The parents of a baby girl must come up with a respectable dowry (the term respectable is arbitrary, respectable dowry can be anything from $50 worth of material goods to $50,000 or more worth of material goods depending on the family's standing in society). If a good dowry is not made, the girl is unlikely to have a "good" match. This again, is mostly arbitrary. A good match for a very poor family might be marriage of their daughter into a slightly better financed family or a good match for a middle income family might be finding a husband that is a doctor or engineer. As you have probably guessed, there are very few brides who actually retain their dowry after marriage. In the most honorable of families the bride is allowed to keep certain items for her own use such as the bed and cooking pots she is suppose to bring with her and some of the jewelry. She is also allowed control over how the rest of the dowry is kept, spent etc. This situation is a very modern one and in place in very educated households.
Which brings me to the issue of the system....yes, folks it still exists. Now before you make that grimace of distaste, let me tell you a little about it. The dowry system has been in place since before the written record and it has been used by parents in every country imaginable, including America in older times. The point of the dowry system was to provide for the bride should something unfortunate occur with her husband such as death or divorce. As you can probably imagine, daughters can be extremely expensive offspring. Parents had/have to make a mad scramble to get enough wealth and material goods together to see their daughter well taken care of by the time she is of marriageable age. In Northern India, today this age can vary from 18-25 though exceptions do apply depending on socio-economic factors.