Marriage in India is steeped in traditions and deep-rooted cultural beliefs. Practices are passed down by word of mouth and in some cases, re-interpreted to align with the changing times. There is, however, one custom that stubbornly resists change: the dowry system.
In India, it has its roots in medieval times when a gift in cash or kind was given to a bride by her family to maintain her independence after marriage. During the colonial period, it became the only legal way to get married, with the British making the practice of dowry mandatory. The trend in present India, with its booming economy, is now encouraging ever-higher bride prices among all socioeconomic strata. But the rising bride price has brought with it an increase in violence against women.
Dowry violence is usually perpetrated by the husband or the in-laws in a bid to extract a higher dowry from the bride’s family. The dowry price paid at the time of marriage may be significant, but the greed of husbands and in-laws can grow after marriage. This frequently translates into physical, mental or sexual violence against the bride. The violence ranges from slashing genitalia or breasts with razors to burning her alive by pouring kerosene on her. In some cases, women are driven to suicide.
Although seeking a dowry has been outlawed in India since 1961, the ban has been a challenge to enforce. An amendment to the law in 1986 mandated that any death or violence within the first seven years of marriage would be tried as related to dowry. The reality is that most cases of dowry violence go unreported.
Even today, over 90% of marriages are “arranged” by the parents of the couple, as has been the case historically. However, the fraction of marriages in which members of the couple have some say over who their partner is has doubled from around 20% in 1960 to 40% by 2005. Marriages are concentrated within small geographical areas. 80% of brides marry grooms who reside within the same district, and the average travel time between the houses of brides and grooms is approximately three hours. As has been the case historically, 95% of marriages are between individuals of the same jati (sub-caste group). The rate of inter-caste marriage in rural areas is approximately the same now as it was in 1950, while in urban areas it has only increased by around 2 percentage points.
The blowout of the dowry system forced the government to take action in the middle of the 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.
It wasn’t until later in the twentieth century, when women’s rights groups were campaigning strongly against dowries and former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi organized the marriage of her son without accepting a dowry from the bride’s parents, that the public took notice, leading to an amendment of the Anti-Dowry Act in 1989 and public enforcement of the law. Among other initiatives, the government established an all-female police taskforce in 1992, set up with the sole purpose of investigating dowry dispute-related abuse or deaths. There are now more than 300 of these police taskforces across the country