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The Dowry System & Sexual Violence Towards Women in India

Arranged marriages have long been perceived as a symbol of wealth and status within India’s community-oriented cultures. Societal norms often paint women with internalized conservative attitudes by using words such as “mother” or “sacrifice” to describe their social roles, which insist that they embrace a family-oriented image while selflessly adhering to everyone’s needs. For traditional (i.e. cisgender and heterosexual) marriages, this translates to society dictating that they typically be organized and paid for by the bride’s parents, and that there are expectations that money, jewely, or other valuables would be given to the groom’s family in the form of a dowry.

As a patriarchal system rooted in patrilineality, the practice of dowry can compromise the physical and psychological well-being of child brides and women as assurances of their safety are exchanged for material worth, as it implies that a bride is only as valuable as the price for which her family is willing to give her away. The amount that a bride is worth depends on factors like the in-laws’ region, religion, caste and subcaste, the groom’s education (which suggests his earning potential and thus his level of respect in the eyes of society), and the bride’s skin tone. If a woman is well-educated, she might be penalized for it as her husband would demand an exorbitant dowry to make up for her earning as much as or more than her husband. Despite the deep-rooted misogyny permeating the practice, dowry has become a symbol of pride in Indian society rather than being regarded as the criminal offense that it is.

Economic security is linked to land ownership in many South Asian countries, particularly in agricultural communities; in India, 2005 amendments to the Hindu Succession Act in inheritance laws allowed women and men equal access to securing land. However, the continuing practice of dowry, which is often considered the daughter’s share of a family’s assets and “has long been accepted justification for unequal inheritance,” disrupts the country’s progress towards equality as men who are considered to be from well-established families demand large dowries in exchange for taking care of their wives. For decades, activists, lawyers, and economists have argued that dowry payments “commodify a woman’s worth and domesticise her identity.” Yet, the normalization of monetary expectations within marriage arrangements that tie a woman’s worth to the money expended on the wedding by her family has allowed other practices like domestic abuse and sexual assault to become prevalent.

The unfairness surrounding the commonly brushed aside and justified fact of violence within marriages does not come as a surprise when we consider the fact that, in a country where a woman is raped every 13 minutes, marital rape is not even considered a crime. As anecdotal evidence will suggest, when patriarchal conditioning throws hate and shame at abused women and excuses men for their actions, many women would rather accept abuse as a normal part of married life for failing to act as a “good wife” for their husband than escape the financial and social “security” they may have been forced into.

The Dowry System & Dowry Deaths

The 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act made the dowry system illegal and punishable by a fine of up to 15,000 Indian rupees and a minimum of five years in prison. Despite the law, as dowry-related violence continued to rise, the Indian Evidence Act of 1872 was changed to include a presumption of suicide abetment if the woman is subjected to mistreatment by her husband or his relatives, and the Indian Penal Code (IPC) criminalized cruelty by a spouse or his relatives in 1983.

Still, harsher penalties have not deterred the practice of dowry as a fundamental institution of Indian marriages – with modern-day gift-giving in the form of gold, land, or cars by the woman’s family presented as a loophole to the law. With over 13,000 dowry complaints and 7,100 dowry deaths in 2