Why Transform the Dowry System in India?

By Yi Ren


In January 2018, I participated in SAIS Women Lead’s ‘Power of Womenomics’ study trek to Bangladesh and India. In many countries, including China where I grew up, a bride price is common. In the modern era, this tradition is criticized because it treats women as “commodities” that can be traded. To my surprise, the situation is the opposite in India. In fact, both dowry and bride price were practiced in India but dowry has gradually become more prevalent. Often, the bridegroom’s family in India demands so much in dowry from the bride’s family that she suffers both physically and mentally when her family is not able to meet their demands.

Dowry was first meant to be a present to a daughter given by her family, and a guarantee of financial security for daughters who do not otherwise inherit land and money in the form of cash, jewelry and gifts. Today, dowry is no longer a gift in India but a demand – a kind of capital that reveals a parasitic economy of men living off ransom or surplus generated from women. Donna Fernandes, who we interviewed from the Vimochana Society in Bangalore, a social service organization “for women in distress,” remarked that “dowry today has less to do with tradition and culture and along with marriage has just become a commercial transaction.”

The demands for dowry bring in its wake torture, brutalization and eventual murder in the form of burnings, electric shocks and deaths through torture. In 1995, the National Crime Bureau of the Government of India reported about 6,000 dowry deaths every year, a number widely believed to be an understatement of the real situation. Unofficial estimates put the number of deaths at 25,000 women per year, with many more left maimed and scarred as a result of attempts on their lives.

Faced with the prospect of dowry, women are often forced into prostitution or became prey to sexual trafficking in India. New forms of bonded labor in which women work for at least three years to earn their dowry are being institutionalized. There are even girls who are hypothecated as sex workers to pay for the marriage of one of her siblings.



SAIS students discuss marriage, family, and work life with villagers and Rajkala Partha, Executive Director of Sharana, an NGO dedicated to bringing about the social development of the villages of Pondicherry through women’s empowerment


The payment of dowry and dowry harassment has long been prohibited under specific Indian laws, including the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, and subsequently by Sections 304B and 498A of the Indian Penal Code as well as section 113B of the Evidence Act. In reality, however, the laws are ineffective owing to women’s reluctance to use criminal law and the inefficiency of the police and the courts. In addition, it is hard for women to provide witnesses and adequate evidence.

Many people blame the practice of dowry on the disadvantage women have in inheritance rules. In many places in India, daughters have no right to inherit their family’s wealth or fewer rights than those of sons, which leads to the need for dowry.

In Bangalore, Professor Sarasu Esther Thomas from the National Law School of India University, told us that because most Indian women are not able to earn a living, they are considered as a burden to their families, thus the necessity of dowry. Sadly, today even the family of a woman with a stable income is still requested to provide a dowry.

To change the current situation, in addition to strengthening legal protections for women and raising awareness of the public about how women suffer, empowering women economically and helping them become independent is key. When women can contribute significantly to families economically, their subordinate status in marriage will change gradually and the justification for dowry will weaken.



Visiting a social enterprise in Auroville that provides jobs for women working in a paper factory in Pondicherry, India


We visited many people and organizations in India that are trying to address the problem of dowry harassment. The Vimochana Society provides women a platform to tell their stories, record injustice and human rights violations, and give voice to marginalized women. Sharana, a local NGO in Pondicherry, is offering small-scale loan assistance and vocational training to women, allowing them to start their own businesses, generate income, and thereby become autonomous. The NS Raghavan Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning in Bangalore is an incubator for Indian women entrepreneurs, providing business training and financial support.

Achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls is one of the sustainable development goals of United Nations. The dowry system impacts everything from how women are treated at the level of the family to whether women are represented politically. Transforming it is one step towards progress for the whole nation.


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