India is celebrating its undeniable gains on its road to women empowerment and gender equality. But a recent study showing an astounding spike in dowry today compared to the 1930s clears the fog, making it apparent that though worth noticing, very little has changed in the consumerist and post-liberalization-driven Indian marriage market.

Due to the unjust social norms abiding women to stand up against dowry-related physical and mental harassment and deaths, the conviction rate in dowry cases is less than 35%. According to a report by India Today, every day, about 21 lives are lost to dowry. Dowry cases often lead to domestic violence, and even worse in many cases. Every year, there are approximately eight thousand deaths reported about dowry-related cases. Still, according to experts, the real numbers are much more as most of the deaths go unreported.

Impacts of Dowry

The adverse impacts of dowry go farther than domestic violence and deaths. Sex-selective abortions, female infanticides are the other devastating outcome of this appalling tradition. The co-relation between dowry and female infanticide can be seen through the study corresponding to gold prices in the international market and a hike in gender-specific abortions. Gold holds a great significance in Indian marriages, the bride is expected to be gifted as much gold as the parents could afford, and sometimes, specific demands are made from the groom’s side. One study mirrored the increase the girl mortality in the infant and neonatal period as the gold prices increased in the 1980s.

The demands significantly impact the annual financial income of a family during marriages. Most Indian parents starting saving for their daughter’s wedding from the day of her birth. Household Savings and Marriage Payments, a paper published in 2018 highlighting the relation between family’s income and dowry payment, states, ‘The prospect of paying higher dowry to increase household savings.’

When digging deeper, it can be seen that the dowry system is not only found in India. It was once immensely popular in medieval Europe amongst most if not all the economic and social groups. Reminisces of the dowry system could be found in many parts of the world. Though with economic development, the tradition slowly faded away from the west, it still is deep-rooted in most of the South-Asian countries including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

Despite improved women’s socio-economic status in the Indian peninsular, the tradition of extensive gift-giving in marriages more than doubled in the past century. During the 1930s, about 40% of marriages involved dowry, whereas the figures touched 90% in the 2000s.

The Evolution of Dowry System

Though to date, researchers have not able to pinpoint the specific reason for the dowry system in the early ages, many believe that it originated from ‘Streedhan‘ (women’s share of wealth). Not long before, women were not allowed to own any property, therefore while wedding off, the daughter’s parents provided dowry to their daughter as compensation.

However, in the current time, dowry is not offered to the girl, but the groom and his family as ‘groom price.’ A man’s groom’s price is usually decided by considering various social and economic factors, including his caste, educational qualification, annual income, and type of job. Therefore, this groom price concept is diametrically opposed to the original idea of dowry (bride price).

Theories Behind The Spike

Marriage market and the rise of the dowry in India paper published by Gaurav Chiplunkar and Jeff Weaver sheds light on four main theories describing the reason behind the spike in dowry in Indian marriages:

Sanskritisation

Proposed by eminent sociologist M. N. Srinivas, the theory of Sanskritisation suggests that the dowry practiced amongst the upper cast lured lower casts to emulate the practice for increasing their social status. But, the theory fails as dowry has been adopted by a major population, irrespective of their cast.

Sex Ratio & Dowry

According to this theory, with the increase in the population between the 1950s and 1960s, there were surplus marriable women, whereas eligible men were scarce. Thus the change in the sex ratio led to the ‘marriage squeeze. But contrary to the prediction, a study found that the squeeze is actually decreasing due to the shrinking age gap between the women and men during the wedding.

Economic Growth, Modernization, and Dowry

Given the popularity of arranged marriage in India; bride’s parent wants to select the most pristine groom from their daughter. The theory suggests that as the economic growth has increased over the past decade, so have the number of wealthy people, thus allowing them to offer more dowry to the most eligible men. But, the theory fails, as all the economic status are witnessing the increased size of dowry.

Dowry & Groom Quality

Groom quality is the most crucial deciding factor of the amount of dowry they receive. As primary and secondary education quality has significantly increased in the last few decades, so has the grooming quality. The Indian marriage market has a higher number of more educated and wealthier grooms than ever, thus resulting in increased dowry.

Band-Aid Solution Will Not Work

There are many laws against dowry, but the deep-rooted tradition is still thriving in the country. The dowry has evolved from money in the past to fancy cars and real estate properties today, but the bride’s parents still have the burden of extra payment for their daughter.

Though the newer generations of brides and grooms are rebelling against the tradition, the change will take time to be effective. Improving the quality of education for women, and opening more economic opportunities, is one of the many ways to eradicate the appalling tradition from its roots.