The Dowry Disease

The high incidence of dowry-related violence despite the Indian Penal Code’s anti-dowry provisions—stringent enough, as Delhi High Court said, to the extent of being misused—reveals that the root of the problem is not the law.

The National Commission for Women and its legal agencies have frequently been called into play, again, to such an extent that many cry over their misuse.

The recent case of Nisha Sharma, who created a stir by declaring that she wouldn’t marry a man who insisted on dowry, is an indication of the real problem. In the photographs taken before she became a “rebel” and was splashed across most newspapers, she could be seen in the foreground with her father, with the background full of cardboard boxes containing a television set, music system, washing machine, and other “gifts” for the prospective couple.

The assortment of consumer durables was to “give them a head start in life.” And we all know, Nisha, a hero in her own right today, had not said “no” to the marriage till her family could no longer afford to pay the “additional dowry.” Nisha was fortunate that the demand for additional dowry was made just before the marriage, and because her family couldn’t afford it, the prospective groom’s parents said “no” first.

Statistics show that not all brides are as fortunate as Nisha. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 6,995 dowry deaths were reported in the year 2000 alone. Among the 23 mega-cities, the share of Delhi was as high as 19.9 percent.

Apart from the dowry deaths, 45,778 incidents of torture by husbands or in-laws were reported. Though that number dropped by 28 percent across the country, Madurai reported an increase of 195.9 per cent and Hyderabad, 200 percent.

Yet, girls like Nisha continue to agree to be sold in the marriage market. They let their parents arrange for dowry, often much beyond their capacity—some parents have to part with their lifelong savings, some sell their property, others take loans and slog for the rest of their lives to repay them. Across India, women are plagued with the dilemma of giving in to the demand for dowry, risking further abuse. Or, they have the choice of saying “no” to dowry and risk a lifetime of humiliation that comes with spinsterhood.

One of the reasons for this tendency is the callous role that society and the brides’ parents and relatives play. Considerable social pressure is attached to parents who have unwed daughters or who shelter a married daughter at home.

Therefore, the custom of dowry is sugar-coated with parents happily providing for the couple by way of expensive receptions, paying for honeymoons and that “little extra” that helps them maintain the lifestyle they had been accustomed to. And later, when insatiable demands of the husband’s family continue, the woman’s parents willingly send her back to “her home” despite the hostile situation, succumbing to absurd norms of society that places such a high premium on marriage.

Unfortunately, such behavior is prescribed in Hindu scriptures. Manushastra, for example, states in 5:154: “The wife should treat the husband as god, (even) if he is characterless, sensual, and devoid of good qualities.” This social set-up, coupled with the attitude that women are a weaker and vulnerable sex, coerces women into accepting the ill treatment meted out to them.

Such attitudes make it necessary for parents to weed out the custom of dowry in all of its subtle forms if they want their beloved daughters to be in a safe home. The best dowry any parents can give their daughter is a good education, healthy self-esteem, and the values of sacramental marriage. Society needs to wake up to its responsibility of building and nurturing responsible human beings, for even now it is the village that raises the child.

Chander Mehra is the author of Understanding Hinduism, among six other books, including Corruption: Dealing with the Devil. He is based in Africa and often travels to the U.S.



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