There are so many theories that try to figure out the origins of the dowry system in India. One theory states that it originated as concepts of Kanyadaan and Stree-Dhan, where the Hindu families donated something of value to their daughters. According to the traditions in the past, a daughter had no share in her family’s property. In the absence of such legal rights, dowry was offered as compensation to the daughters. But today, the meaning of dowry has changed.
In the past, it was offered to the daughters, now it’s being offered to her in-laws. Nowadays, dowry is more identifiable with the concept of “Groom Price” – in which the amount of dowry payment is decided by the “market value of the groom”. This market value could depend upon his caste, education, salary package, or type of job. This “Groom Price” is diametrically opposite to the idea of “Bride Price”, where instead of the groom, the bride is paid. The ‘bride price’ was common in South India during the 19th century. Even today it continues in some parts of India, like the Northeast. The concept of ‘bride price’ was practiced mostly by poor and lower caste families, because ‘bride price’ was a kind of compensation. The woman (bride) used to work for her family. As after her marriage, she would no longer be able to work for her family, the ‘bride pride’ was paid as compensation to the family. And in India, women from lower castes are more likely to work than women from upper-castes. Upper-caste families value ‘honor’ that prevents them from letting their women go outside the house for work.
According to researchers, there hasn’t been much change in the practice of bride price in India, but the practice of dowry has significantly increased. This is despite the fact that there have been many anti-dowry reformers in India. For example, Satya Rani Chaddha, who led several campaigns against dowry. There have been several reformers in our history. For example, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who not only spoke against dowry, but also against practices like the sati system, purdah system, caste system, and child marriage.
Why is the practice of dowry increasing in India despite economic development?
There are several theories that explain this. Let’s focus on three main theories.
Theory of Sanskritisation
This theory was proposed by renowned Indian sociologist M.N. Srinivas. In simple words, Sanskritisation is the process by which people belonging to the lower castes seek to improve their status by copying the practices of the upper castes. M.N. Srinivas proposes that dowry was mostly practiced among the upper castes and it spread among the lower castes as they wanted to improve their status. However, Gaurav Chiplunkar and Jeffrey Weaver show from their paper that this theory can’t explain the increase in dowry rates among the higher caste groups. They compared the adoption of dowry across four different caste groups, all the trends look similar. However, if M.N. Srinivas’ theory was true, we would have only seen the rise for lower castes and not for the upper castes.
Economic Development Theory
This theory is given by Siwan Anderson, which suggests that the economic development led to the increased adoption of dowry in India, especially because of the tendency in Hindu society where women’s families prefer marrying them to someone of a higher caste. Anderson assumes that each groom chooses the bride that offers the highest dowry. Before economic development, most wealth was concentrated in the hands of upper-castes. But due to the development, the lower-castes became wealthy too. Because now the lower-caste families also have money, their women can compete with upper-caste women to marry an upper-caste man. Due to increased competition, more and more families have to pay dowry. That’s why there’s a rise in the dowry.
This theory looks good on paper, but it has some shortcomings too. Anderson has assumed that a family prefers to marry its woman to a higher-caste groom. But research has shown that families usually prefer intra-caste marriage. In fact, Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and other economists suggested in their paper that a bride’s family has such a strong preference of marrying within their caste that they prefer a groom belonging to their caste with no education over a groom with a master’s degree belonging outside their caste group.
Groom Quality Theory
The theory states that over the years, the quality of grooms has improved. Hence, more bride families have to pay the dowry. After India gained independence, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s… There was a significant investment in the field of education and most of it was on men. As men started getting educated and secured better jobs, their market value increased. Thus, more and more families had to pay the dowry. There’s a catch to this argument. This would happen only if the relative groom quality increases. This means that if women get educated along with men, there won’t be much difference in the practice of dowry. Relativity matters here. Gaurav Chiplunkar asserts that increasing women’s quality through education could be a solution to dowry.
Dowry is a dire problem. But this doesn’t mean there are no solutions. We need to be innovative while finding the solutions because banning the practice of dowry won’t make any difference. There have been laws against dowry but they have barely affected the practice of dowry.
As we discussed, the high relative quality of men has increased the practice of dowry. To decrease this, we need to improve the quality of women. It means that we need to educate them and give them equal economic opportunities. How do we do this? There are two ways. By promoting rural manufacturing and by improving transport infrastructure. A survey has suggested that by building a permanent or makeshift road, women’s participation in non-farm work can increase by nearly 50%.
Apart from these, we need to change the mentality of society too. And that’s crucial. Because if we try to stop the practice of dowry by sending the culprit to jail, without changing the societal norms, the position of women will worsen. A research paper showed that women who paid dowry have a greater say in their house after marriage. It could be because their in-laws are respecting them. So, if you eliminate dowry through legal means only, the position of women in their houses might worsen.
Thus, the government needs to change the mentality of society. It can do this with the help of an innovation-diffusion framework. According to this framework, to bring a change in a community, you need to change its key leaders first. So, to change people’s attitude towards dowry, the government needs to identify the key leaders and educate them about the ills of dowry Over the years, the form of dowry must have changed, but its practice has grown stronger. Earlier it took place in the open, now it’s taking place behind closed doors. Thus, the legal system and society have to come together to abolish this evil practice.