We all know about its existence. It is a well known fact that thousands of women in South Asian countries including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh die every year because of it. We know that there are laws banning it, but the laws are weak and their implementation even weaker. We are aware of its cultural, historical and societal origins. We know about the terrifying and horrendous crimes occurring because of it but we seem powerless to raise our voices against it or put a stop to the crimes. Seeing the silence that follows these crimes it seems that we do not want to believe in its existence. But why is it we are reluctant to do anything about these crimes that are taking the lives of so many women around us?
This paper is an attempt to explore the laws and their role in ensuring protection against these terrible crimes claiming the lives of thousands of women annually and propose alternative ways to not only look at the problem but suggest workable solutions to prevent these crimes from re-occurring in the future.
Section 1 will provide us with a definition of dowry and eliminate any confusions that may fog our brains regarding the legal meaning of the term. Section 2 will provide us with some insight into the modern day consequences of the dowry system and will talk about the curse that the dowry system inflicts on thousands of lives. Section 3 will explore the laws on dowry and the ineffectuality of them. Section 4 will discuss contemporary problems of the modern dowry system and will provide some suggestions to solve them . And finally I will end my paper with some concluding remarks.
Section 1 : Defining Dowry
There is much confusion and speculation about the definition of dowry and what constitutes dowry. According to the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1980:
“ unless there is anything repugnant in the subject or context ,”dowry” means any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly.-
(a) by one party to a marriage to the other party to the marriage;
(b) by the parents of either party to a marriage or by any other person, to either party to the marriage or to any other person, at the time of marriage or at any time before or after the marriage as consideration for the marriage of the said parties but does not include dower or mehr in the case of persons to whom the Muslim Personal Law (shariat) applies.
Explanation-I- For the removal of doubts it is hereby declared that any presents made at the time of a marriage by any person other than a party to the marriage to either party to the marriage in the form of any articles the value of which does not exceed five hundred taka, shall riot be deemed to be dowry within the meaning of this section, unless they are made as consideration for the marriage of the said party.
Explanation- II – The expression “valuable security” has the same meaning as the section 30 of the Penal Code (Act XLV of 1860).
Penalty for giving or taking dowry– If any person, after the commencement of this Act gives or takes or abets the giving or taking of dowry, he shall be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to five years and shall not be less than one year, or with fine or with both.
Penalty for demanding Dowry– If any person, after the commencement of this Act, demands directly or Indirectly, from the parents or guardian of a bride or bridegroom, as the case may be, any dowry, he shall be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to five years and shall not be less than one year, or with fine or with both.  “
Section 2: Modern Day Consequences of the Dowry System
In the book “Human Rights of women” Ashine Roy successfully paints the picture of modern day dowry related violence in South Asian countries and says that in some of the countries “payment of an agreed upon dowry”  by the bride’s family precedes weddings. In Bangladesh, a husband threw acid on his bride’s face and disfigured it just because the dowry was not sufficient. In India, statistics show that on average five women per day are burned in dowry related disputes. These burning of innocent women is termed “bride burning”. Countless other cases alike are never reported. “Dowry deaths” is the term used to refer to deaths or suicides of women due to extortion of an increased dowry by husbands or in-laws. Dowry deaths occur commonly in South Asia. In her book “Marriage and Modernity”, Rochona Majumdar tells us about the time when criticism of the dowry system in the Bengali Society of India reached a pinnacle during 1914, when a young Bengali girl committed suicide in order to save her father from imminent financial doom that would have resulted from his efforts to put together her marriage dowry .People who are the social and legal guardians and protectors of these women i.e. husbands and in-laws are often the people responsible for dowry deaths. According to a study, dowry demands have been identified as one of the major causes of murder of women in Bangladesh. The authors created a table including data from various media sources and concluded that almost 50% of all murders of women that occurred during the years 1983-1984 were dowry deaths.
The following is a table published in “The Socio-Legal Status of Bengali Women in Bangladesh” containing data of reported incidences of dowry violences:
Reported Incidences of ‘Dowry Violences’ 1995-1999
|year||Number of Reported Incidences|
The modern phenomenon of dowry in South Asia is the misuse of dowry as an enticement for a man to marry a woman or the demands of dowry payments by a man or his family having somewhat the same effect as a lucrative bribe for the bridegroom. As a result it is now commonly regarded as the “groom price” which is different than the traditional “kanyadan” or bride wealth. This contemporary characteristic of dowry acts as a means of transmission huge sum of money, cash, jewellery etc from the bride’s family to the groom’s family. Dowry is often paid as a form of compensation to the groom’s family in places where women are considered unproductive. But at present the offer and acceptance of dowry cannot be explained by the laid- back approach of women in economic activities.
Section 3: The laws on Dowry and the Ineffectuality of them
Among the South Asian countries, India was the first to attempt to control the dowry problem by passing The Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961. Pakistan soon followed and made appropriate legislative enactments applicable only for the western wing of the country. The ultimate and base need of Bangladeshi women was to be protected from violence and have financial independence by overcoming economic deprivation. Both these hindrances( violence and economic deprivation) contribute to dowry problems. Thus, the Dowry Prohibition Act ,1980 and Cruelty to Women Ordinance,1983 were enacted as a result of the increasing evidence of cruelty against women. Recently a more comprehensive enactment (the Repression Against Women and Children(Special Enactment) Act xviii of 1995 has repealed the Cruelty to Women Ordinance, 1983 and enhanced the punishment. More recently The Women and Children Repression Prevention (Special Provision) Act 2000 increased punishments in most cases upto death penalty for crimes against women and children.
In “Strategies for Combating the Culture of Dowry and Domestic Violence in India” an expert paper, prepared by Madhu Purnima Kishwar , it is said that the ineffectuality of the laws is due to the secretive nature of the modern dowry system. Earlier families used to make lists and prepare accounts of things given as dowry and the groom’s family were made to sign the list of things they were receiving from the bride’s family and the dowry was put on display so that the relatives could take notes and bear witness of the transactions taking place. Nowadays, no lists are signed and the transactions are kept secret and only known via whispers within the social circles. This creates a problem during dissolving the marriage in the future since there is no written record of the dowry transactions and this provides a lot of scope for phony claims and deceitful denials.
The Anti- dowry laws cannot be said to be a complete success. The proponents and defender of the laws demand the laws be more severe instead of being more active in implementing the laws. As a result, the anti- dowry campaign is unable to get the attention it so deserves.
Section 4: Contemporary Problems of the Modern Dowry system and Suggestions to solve them
The modern day dowry system in South Asian countries like India acts as a disinheritance procedure. The daughters of the family are thought to be unproductive and so the parents desperately push their daughters away from their homes after marrying them off. Since the daughters are unable to partake in economic activity the respective groom’s family has to be compensated for this. Failure to do so is considered to be a disgrace for the family’s name and reputation.
Daughters will be able to provide their parents with old-age security once they become equal inheritors. Then, parents can also depend on their daughters instead of only depending on sons and draughts-in-law for old-age security. This will help families be less male-centric and less susceptible to brutal fights and disagreements. The culture of disinheritance seen in some South Asian countries contribute to the increasing hold of dowry culture;
The following suggestions may prove to be more effective than anti-dowry laws in countries like India:
a) use suasive measures like high profile campaigning to encourage parents to gift their daughters income generating forms of property like land, house, or business shares
b) to promote the gifting of a house, room etc to daughters in her name depending on the financial and economic status of families so that their daughters may never be thrown out of their houses.
Among the horrendous crimes that occur against women in South Asian countries dowry deaths are most widespread. The alleged criminals causing these deaths are very closely related to the women usually their husband or in-laws. Dowry deaths have been identified as a dreadful aide memoire of the authoritativeness of patriarchy. Legislation and NGO intercession cannot eliminate this evil phenomenon from the society unless there is a change in the mindset and attitude of the South Asian people. Since the problem of dowry seems to be a deeply rooted social problem changes in the attitudes of the people of the society can only provide effective solutions to this problem. Undoubtedly, legislation supported by education and legal awareness will play a very important role in eradicating this social evil. The parents of a would-be bride should realize that giving dowry only increases their daughter’s misfortune since it feeds the greed of the groom and his family and they may try to extort more dowry in the future. Instead parents should try and protect their daughter’s future from economic and financial deprivation and violence by educating them about their rights within marriage.
1) Roy, Ashine. Human Rights of Women. New Delhi: Rajat Publications, 2003.
2) Mojumdar, Rochona. Marriage and Modernity. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009.
3) Khan, Saira Rahman. The Socio-Legal Status of Bengali Women in Bangladesh – Implications for Development. The University Press Limited ,2001.
4) Kishwar, Madhu Purnima. Strategies for combating the culture of dowry and domestic violence in India. India: Manushi,2005.
5) Dowry Prohibition Act of 1980: Published on 26-10-1988 in the Bangladesh Gazette (Extra ordinary), Nari O Shishu Nirjaton Domon Ain,2000.
6) Monsoor, T,.(2003). Dower and Dowry: Its affect on the empowerment of muslim women , Retrieved October 10,2010 from The Daily Star database on the World Wide Web: http://www.thedailystar.net/law/200307/04/index.htm
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 Published on 26-10-1988 in the Bangladesh Gazette (Extra ordinary)
 Amended by Ord. LXIV of 1984 w.e.f 13.10.1984
 Amended by Ordinance No. 26 of 1986 w.e.f 30. 3. 1986.
 Amended by Ordinance No. 26 of 1986 w.e.f. 30. 3. 1986.
 Ashine Roy, Human Rights of Women, Rajat Publications, New Delhi, 2003, p.21.
 Rochona Mojumdar, Marriage and Modernity, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2009, p.12.
 Monsoor, T,.(2003). Dower and Dowry: Its affect on the empowerment of muslim women , Retrieved October 10,2010 from The Daily Star database on the World Wide Web: http://www.thedailystar.net/law/200307/04/index.htm
 Saira Rahman Khan ,The Socio-Legal Status of Bengali Women in Bangladesh – Implications for Development, The University Press Limited,2001, p.124.