Written by: Ajitha Kulasekaran (ME218)
Growing up, my friends and I used to play this game where we asked each other what we would do with a million dollars. The person to give the wildest, silliest answer won the game. I had different answers to this at different stages in my life. When I was 5, I wanted a million water guns; at 6, I wished for a huge Forever 21 outlet all to myself; when I turned 7, I hoped for a mansion with slides everywhere. The point is, my answer was always something silly I dreamed of, or could dream of. This, sadly, was not – and still is not – the case for many young girls my age in certain parts of the world. While I had the liberty to dream, many young girls are robbed of this and instead, lectured by elders from a young age and forced to accept the fate that they are just going to get married off to some man that they didn’t choose, paying a hefty sum of their family’s inheritance for it too.
A dowry is an ancient custom which continues to be expected and demanded as a condition to accept a marriage proposal in some parts of the world, namely in parts of Asia, Northern Africa and the Balkans, with perhaps India being the most notorious for it. It involves the transfer of parental property, gifts or money from the bride’s family to the groom’s family in which the bride is said to move into, ostensibly for the bride and her financial security. While this might sound harmless and even beneficial to brides, its intricacies are much more sinister.
A dowry is not just the transaction of money or material riches between families. It goes way beyond that. It can be said that dowries are one of the key reasons why there is still an imbalance of power between men and women in many of the societies where this practice is still observed. It also remains as one of the key causes of domestic abuse and violence against women, including ruthless killings in these societies as well.
The economics of dowry
A dowry was originally meant to give women financial security as it was seen as the family inheritance being passed down to the bride. However, the reality is that in most cases, the bride has no access to the money or material riches. It mostly ends up going to the groom’s family or is used by the groom in his business ventures. While this is said to benefit both the bride and groom, the bride is still left penniless and financially dependent on her husband in the end, especially in communities which still restrict women from entering the workforce and earning their own money. This leads to the power imbalance between men and women in these communities and women are often forced to stay in abusive marriages as they cannot fend for themselves.
It is also argued by some that dowries are economically sound as families usually have daughters and sons. In other words, a family can expect to receive back the dowry that was paid for their daughter when their son gets married. You can probably see the problem with this. What if the family has no sons? What if they have 3 daughters and a son?
This is precisely why males are seen as assets and there is a very evident preference for male children, which is still one of the reasons why female feticide still exists in some of these communities. Prenatal sex determination was banned in India in 1994 under the Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (prohibition of sex selection) Act, but female to male ratios are still far from normal in these communities. From this, it is apparent how dowries – which was meant to benefit women – due to its lopsided flawed economics, has led to institutionalised and generational inequality of the sexes, down to the numbers.
Shouldn’t education fix this?
It is often said that education is the cement that will seal the cracks in society. Where there is inequality or injustice, education is meant to fix that. However, when it comes to ancient practices like dowries, which have been in practice for multiple generations, there is little education can do. Research reveals that the families of educated grooms expect higher dowries and while this is beneficial to men, women, on the other hand, pay a price for their education. In a conventional arranged marriage in India, for example, the wife is not supposed to earn more than her husband. Therefore, a high-earning woman is only arranged to marry an even higher earning man, who, then again, expects a higher dowry based on his earning potential. In this regard, education gets reduced to just another aspect that determines one’s market rate, just like how caste, skin tone and religion are all factors in this “calculation”.
The odds are stacked against women, once again, in a deep generational way.
The state of it today
Although all of this can seem pretty alarming or disheartening, society has come a long way. Arranged marriages are not as common as “love marriages” – where the bride and groom find each other as compared to their parents being involved and finding partners for their children – these days.
Moreover, with the youth being much more aware nowadays and engaging in advocacy more than ever, dowries are not expected in nearly as many marriages as in the past. Men are refusing to allow their families to ask the bride’s family for dowries, and women are refusing to get married to men whose families ask for dowries. The youth of today no longer want marriages which are business deals or company mergers between families. The ideation behind marriage has vastly changed and become more westernized.
Additionally, on government policy levels, many countries now have laws that ban this practice. In india, the payment of dowries has long been prohibited under the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. Although there have been laws against dowries for decades, these laws have been criticised to be ineffective due to most dowries not being reported. Deaths, murders and domestic abuse cases related to dowries are still prevalent.
In rural areas of many countries, changes that have happened in more westernised societies have yet to happen in those parts and consequently, it is the women in these communities that have to suffer.
What can we do to move forward?
Like the gender wage gap seen even in countries like the United States, some things are so entrenched in the culture and gender politics that they defy all logic. It is not easy to get rid of them.
Government-wise, stricter policies have to be put in place. It is also the responsibility of countries to take a stand with regard to this issue and act upon it.
As a global community, we can all be aware and educated on this issue. Although this might not concern most of us in the modern world, we have to acknowledge that this is still the plight of many fellow humans and think about what we can do to play a part in this narrative. Like with anything, awareness and education is the first, boldest step. We need awareness on this, on how this is one of the many instances where there is still inequality of the sexes, and on how it can stem from institutionalised practices.
That being said, it boils down to women.
Although it was previously mentioned that education cannot fix this, it is undeniably still the best tool. As girls in rural parts of the world get educated, not just in terms of schooling, but also regarding the social structures they live in and how they have been taken advantage of, they will have the insight and courage to make changes for themselves and break away from practices that do not serve in their best interest.
Women are powerful and, with the right tools, they have the power to free themselves as well as redefine destiny for themselves and the generations to come.