Sunday, March 4, 2007

Dowry and the Indian Society

The Census 2001 statistics reveal that there are 35 million fewer females than males. Female feticide is particularly rampant in rich states like Haryana and Punjab. The recent Economist blog sums up the attitudes of those indulging in female feticide in the words of a good doctor as follows

"Of my 10 first cousins in Punjab, no one has had a daughter in 10 years," he says. "You hope someone else would be stupid enough to produce a girl but not you."

What drives people to kill the female fetus? One of the respondents to that article offers an economic analysis

“The problem is quite simple - children are an investment. You put some money into raising them and when they grow up you get some return out of them, whether this be financial or in terms of caring for you in your old age. As described above, when you raise boys, they bring you dowry when they get married and also stay at home to take care of you in your old age. When you raise girls, you have to pay for their dowry and since they go off to live with their husbands when married, they are not able to take care of you either. As it currently stands, boys offer a positive rate of return but girls offer a negative rate of return. Not surprisingly, investors (parents) are dumping all their assets of the latter and piling into the former.”

Another reason is that it is the son who performs the last rites in the Hindu ritual system. However, this “dumping of liabillities” logic is leading to a future that Manish Jha’s film “Mathrubhoomi — A Nation without Women” portends. The other question raised by that article is

“Given the growing scarcity of women, how can the parents of boys continue to demand such high fees (dowry)?”

Dowry is not unique to India. One of the famous instances of dowry was when King Charles the first of England was given the fishing villages of Bombay as part of the dowry by the Portuguese, a case of marriage as a union of nobility and colonial dominance.

One of the reasons dowry persists despite several legislations is because, the ability to marry the daughter to a superior male from the same jati or caste, is a matter of social prestige for the bride’s father. If the intention to gain a higher social image through marriage motivates the bride’s family, for the groom’s family, dowry denotes the value of social prestige and honor they wield in their community. This resulted in a vicious cycle, where most Indian males adhere to dowry practices even if they don’t admit publicly. Even in cases where dowry is not demanded, it is because there are greater economic and personal benefits than dowry to be had from girl’s parents (say “an influential father in law”) than because it is a social evil.

A change will only happen ,after the sacred status of marriage gets diminished, and modernity, education and new economic realities push people to look for spouses outside their castes, resulting in marriage becoming more of a social contract based on compatibility of individuals, rather than the economic contract it is now.


  1. I agree with the economic analysis on the issue as holding the most weight. I think that the financial aspect holds the key to most hierarcial setups. Dowry apart, it is always the girl's family which has to take the whole burden of paying for and arranging the marriage. After the marriage families always refer to the girl as having been given off to the boy's family, as though it is a commodity. I really agree with you that a change will only happen if people start looking at marriage in terms of a social contract rather than a economic one.