Nearly 60 years have passed since the dowry abolition system legislation was passed in India but we still have the cruel reality of 20 dowry deaths a day in the country ( dowry killings, or women pushed by dowry related cruelty towards suicide). Each one of these deaths is a hugely tragic story, and it is being repeated 7000 times in a year.

Yet this is only  one aspect of the many sides of the wider manifestation of the dowry problem in India. In a narrow sense dowry refers to the gifts or cash a bride is supposed to bring to her husband’s home ( or to her in-laws) at the time of marriage. That this should be considered an essential part of marriage is bad enough. But the reality is worse because in practical terms the manifestation is much wider. It is more realistic to consider all the financial implications and burdens of marriage of a daughter. The gifts, material goods and cash constitute only one aspect. But in addition there is the ever-increasing burden of the other grand and expensive arrangements the bride’s side have to make to welcome the barraat or the bridegroom party. The total number of guests may be in hundreds. There is increasing pressure to arrange the grand party in a banquet hall or hotel or other expensive place on a lavish scale. This is not all. The financial burden on the bride side does not end with marriage. Often financial and other demands continue much after the marriage, and the treatment the bride gets related to the extent these demands are fulfilled. If she is working, often almost her entire salary may be grabbed.

Now consider all this from the point of view of honest, hard working, ordinary  parents having three daughters. How are they to provide for this wider dowry system for three daughters ( or even one or two daughters)? If they are farmers will they have to sell their land? If they are petty salary earners, will they have to incur heavy debts? It is worries like these which needlessly become the main worry for many households. And if despite their best efforts of arranging the wider dowry, the daughters are mistreated then this again becomes an abiding source of distress in old age. To avoid this distress to parents, the daughters facing cruelty may hide this, eventually perhaps being driven to a cruel death at a relatively young age.

All this completely avoidable distress can be traced to the deadly combination of two sources—gender injustices of traditional society to which the relentless consumerism and shameless greed of capitalism and neo-liberalism are added.  As these  trends have accentuated, the dowry system in its wider manifestation went on becoming more cruel and shameless despite the passing of dowry abolition legislation.

What is worse and even more worrying is that the entire fervor , the entire zeal of social reform is gone along with the strengthening of the shameless consumerism and greed of capitalism and neo-liberalism. So we no longer have a social reform movement for curbing this growing wider manifestation of the dowry system. I have visited many villages during drought years and found that even in times of hunger there is even greater distress and stress regarding marriages that may have to be postponed if not cancelled altogether.

Somehow the social reformist zeal of our society has to be revived and recreated as without this rapidly growing serious social problems like this wider manifestation of the dowry system cannot be resolved. How can there be equality for women when the cruel dowry system continues to flourish? There is even evidence of more adverse sex ratio in those states where dowry system is worse.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author who has been close to several social reform efforts.


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