September 1, 2011

In most societies, marriage plays an important role for men and women alike. In the past few decades there has been much research on the institution of marriage and the family among economists and anthropologists. One of the most intriguing and contested issues is the dowry.

A dowry, in its simplest form and structure, is the “property that a woman brings to her husband at the time of marriage. The dowry apparently originated in the giving of a marriage gift by the family of the bridegroom to the bride and the bestowal of money upon the bride by her parents.” There have been many cultures that had some form of dowry. It was most familiar in propertied cultures such as Ancient Greece and Rome, India, and Medieval Europe. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, the dowry system in England and the United States, except Louisiana, is not recognized as law. However, in civil-law countries the dowry is still recognized as an important form of property. The current status of the dowry has complex repercussions, and is not as altruistic as the definition above seems to purport. The regions that practice dowries, legally or illegally, are primarily in South Asia (India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) and the Middle East. There are also a few remote areas of Africa that recognize the practice.

If a dowry is merely a gratuitous payment from the family of the bride to the family of the groom, why are virtually all nations trying to stop the dowry? The most recognizable impact and repercussion of a dowry system can be found in remote parts of India. In India, the groom and the groom’s family, either directly or indirectly, sets the amount of the dowry. The dowry can be in various forms such as cash, clothes, jewels, wedding and/or reception expenses, honeymoon expenses, travel expenses, fees for education (virtually always for the groom), and often times the marital home. If the family of the bride is opulent or the groom and his family are sufficiently mollified, the wedding and dowry are considered successful. However, if either the groom or his family is dissatisfied with the dowry or the bride’s family is destitute, the dowry may be considered insufficient with sometimes devastating results.

An informative and progressive movement entitled “India Together” lists possible treatment of the bride if the dowry is insufficient. The first case is labeled “Extreme”: “the bride will be subjected to extreme forms of torture, both physically and emotionally, which may include beating and infliction of physical pain, that may result in her death or permanent physical handicap.” The second is “Severe”: “the bride will be threatened with dismal consequences including divorce and physical abuse, and will have to bear the insults slung at her parents.” The last is “Harsh, but Standard”: “the bride is reminded of her inadequacies and faced with complaints about her parents. In some cases, pressure is created on her and her parents to meet the demand subsequently.”

If the family of the bride is unable to give a sufficient dowry due to financial problems, the impact becomes a national problem. Dowry is closely linked to many crimes against women in India; to list a few: female infanticide, domestic violence, neglect of a girl child, denial of educational and career opportunities to daughters. The persuasive use of statistics provided by India Together regarding the present-day trend of higher mortality rates among females, the growing illiteracy rates among women in India, and the National Crime Bureau of the Government of India are evidence of the growing rate of dowry deaths. Although in 1961 the Indian government passed the Dowry Prohibition

Act that outlawed dowry payment, according to Roy and Singh, the legislation is purely symbolic and virtually impossible to enforce, especially in remote parts of India.

India is not alone in combating dowries. In Bangladesh, the Grameen Bank is a group fund and major small-scale credit program that provides production credit and other services to the poor. Production credit is a private-lending system where a person can receive a loan from a financial institution to produce certain foods, clothing, and other profit-making endeavors. The loans are paid back with a minimal, if any, interest rate. Founded in 1976 by Muhammed Yunus, the Grameen Bank provides financing for nonagricultural self-employment activities to 2 million borrowers, 94% of whom are women. In order to participate in the microloan program, an eligible woman must memorize, chant, and follow the “Sixteen Decisions.” These decisions include “We shall not take any dowry in our sons’ wedding, neither shall we give any dowry in our daughters’ wedding,” and “We shall educate all of our children.”

With the work of progressive ideology such as India Together and the Grameen Bank, many may be able to reduce the discrimination and abuse that accompanies a dowry. Although the dowry seems like an offering, more and more it is a sale of a loved one into domestic slavery. Slavery is always an unwelcome and uninvited wedding guest.

SEE ALSO: Child abuse, Discrimination, Divorce, Domestic violence, Feminism, Slavery, Violence

Suggested Reading

Dowry. (2002). Columbia encyclopedia (6th ed.). New York.

Columbia University Press. Dowry. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary (Electronic ed., version 1.5, 1996). Pitt, M. M., & Khandker, S. R. (1998). The impact of group-based credit programs on poor households in Bangladesh: Does the gender of participants matter? The Journal of Political Economy, 106(5), 958-996.

Roy, A., & Singh, S. (2003). The dowry campaign launched and the dowry campaign pledge. India Together. Retrieved May 2002, from


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