Keeping Tradition

The Despicable Persistence of the Dowry in India

Washing machines, cars, money and jewelry: These are the costs to women’s families to marry them to 'suitable' men.

Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty

NEW DELHI — This April, Guruswamy, a 52-year-old platform cleaner with the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, had finally found a caste-appropriate match for his 16-year-old daughter Pankaja. But the week before the wedding, he was asked to send a colour television, washing machine and new motorcycle to the groom’s family in South India. After grueling 20-hour shifts cleaning cars and working on the Metro’s platforms through the summer, he has managed to make only enough for a washing machine.

“It will be a while before I have enough to send everything by train,” he said. “I pray every day that they shouldn’t find someone else for their son to marry. No one else from the village in Chennai will marry her if this family rejects her.”

The plight of Guruswamy and Pankaja is a common one for India’s marriage-aged women. And despite the rapid modernization of India’s economy, its traditions—especially regarding dowry—persist, often to women’s detriment.

Once a substitute for regular inheritance, young Indian brides used to receive dowry in the form of land, jewelry, or money when they went to live with a new family after marriage. Under colonial rule, and changing economic pressures, dowry was transformed into a source of income for the husband’s family, and a cause for tremendous anxiety to families with daughters.

That wasn’t supposed to happen. In 2014, India was ranked 10th among the world’s top 15 economies in terms of overall GDP. At the conclusion of the recent BRICS summit, the World Bank promised India $15 billion to $18 billion to aid development. Recently, between 2007-2012, the country also saw the appointment of its first female president, Pratibha Patil.

Yet, data from the National Crime Records Bureau (the country’s only source for collecting and analysing instances of reported crime) indicates more than 8,000 women died due to dowry-related reasons last year. Dowry has been transformed into something more sinister.

Marrying off daughters to suitable men has come to mean that families frequently have to mortgage their homes, sell personal belongings or perform years of hard labour to pay the dowry demanded by the groom’s family. Even for New Delhi’s urban poor, paying dowry can cost a lifetime of daily wage labour, with no retirement age in sight.

As Mumbai-based legal scholar Flavia Agnes points out, this tendency to consider daughters “paraya dhan,” or “the wealth of another man,” is directly correlated to higher rates of aborting female fetuses and infanticide. (Indeed, as the costs of dowries have risen, the price of abortions have dropped; they can be had for as little as $40.) It’s also partially responsible for a skewed gender ratio in the country, currently at 940 women to 1,000 men.

Since India has adopted a growing culture of consumerism, it is usual for dowries to include cars, electronic appliances like televisions, refrigerators, music systems—along with the usual demands of cash and property. Upper-class families, or those with educated children, are not free to duck custom either. An educated son, or one with a Green Card, is seen as a “good catch” and therefore fetches vast sums for his family. In these marriages, dowry is frequently disguised as “gifts” from the girl’s family, and along with lavish destination weddings that last days, and include guest appearances by Indian film stars and politicians, these “ceremonies” become transactions of power and prestige.

In a recent report, Condé Nast India president Alex Kuruvilla surmised that the average Indian spends a staggering one-fifth of the wealth accumulated in his lifetime on a son or daughter’s wedding, second only to the investment made in the family home.

The alternative to paying dowry: having an unwed daughter living at home with her parents, which is still seen as a source of shame for many Indian families.

Since dowry demands do not necessarily end with the wedding, Indian wives often find themselves in a hostage-like situation, facing sustained and horrific abuse from their in-laws—ranging from verbal and domestic violence to murder. These demands can increase at whim, and worsen with the birth of a child. The alarming number of young women that died in “accidental” kitchen fires in the 1980s had resulted in an amendment to existing dowry laws in India, whereby the unnatural death of any woman within the first seven years of marriage was officially recognised as a dowry death.

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Varsha Ramakrishnan, a physician and student at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, began documenting stories of dowry violence on a training stint in India two years ago. “I realized that the female burn wards at the hospital I was working at were always crowded up to maximum capacity, and the male wards nearly empty,” she said. Some of the women Varsha met had been set alight over as little as Rs 5,000—less than $85 American—and suffered burns over 90 percent of their bodies.

“Tragically, a lot of them lied to the police about what happened to them, because their husbands threatened the children. It’s easier in India to kill your wife and marry someone else than it is to pay dowry,” she pointed out.

Despite data that indicates a woman is killed for dowry every hour, India’s high court recently made it even harder for women to report abuse. On July 2, Justices C.K. Prasad and P.C. Ghose of the Supreme Court said the section of the Indian Penal Code that deals with dowry-related and domestic violence was a “weapon for disgruntled wives,” and prone to misuse. Supporting their argument, the judges cited that only 15 percent of 197,762 arrests made under this section resulted in actual conviction last year.

However, cases involving violence against women have a traditionally—and appallingly—low rate of conviction in India. Regardless of class, women routinely face difficulties filing complaints with the police. Poorer women are frequently harassed further at police stations, and most complaints of verbal or physical abuse are treated as an “internal family matter” or dismissed as frivolous. Even in the event that a case on grounds of “cruelty” is registered with the police, these cases are extremely difficult to prove in courts without visible signs of torture. Making matters worse, women often have to continue living with their in-laws even after filing cases against them, coming under tremendous pressure to withdraw the complaint.

Sustained awareness campaigns have resulted in some success over the past decade. More couples are choosing simple marriage contracts signed in court over elaborate weddings, and courts are increasingly recognising the rights of live-in partners, not just spouses. In 2010, Rani Tiwari, a young woman from the small town of Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, made a secret video recording of her prospective in-laws demanding 5 lakhs (about $8,200) from her family—and filed a case with the police, using the footage as evidence. Shortly after the incident came to light, Tiwari received over 42 proposals for marriage from families appreciative of her courage and resourcefulness. In Kolkata, a 27-year-old grade-school dropout disowned his family when they asked his future wife for dowry—choosing to marry her under police protection instead.

The Internet has played a role as well: Recently, the world’s largest matrimonial website (with over 30 million users),, introduced a virtual game called “Angry Brides.” Players can attack “prospective grooms” (an engineer, a doctor and a pilot, all demanding large sums of cash) with an arsenal that includes everything from high-heeled sandals to brooms. Each successful hit contributes to a virtual “anti dowry fund.”

Meanwhile, Guruswamy’s sister, a cook in East Delhi, has just had her third grandchild. He is pleased to report that it is a boy.

“I was worried for her when the first one was a girl,” he said. “A girl will cost your life’s earnings.”