Dowry: another taboo topic. Sadly a concept that frays couples from saying the famous “I do” down the aisle, unless dowry is paid upfront.
What is dowry?
Dowry can be defined as a form of payment of monetary or physical value, such as a lump sum of cash or property (or properties) to the bride’s in-laws. What is surprising to note is that in South Asian communities, dowry can be negotiated, dependant on a number of factors including caste, social status and how much can be offered. It might even be thought that the the more favourable the dowry offer, the more likely the wedding will proceed.
South Asian statutes
Dowry is a practice that still takes place within the South Asian community. It is still sadly widely practiced. Dowry offers have been made illegal in India since 1961, compounded in Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code (“IPC”), 1860, which now enlists dowry arrangements punishable with a minimum sentence of imprisonment for 7 years, up to a maximum imprisonment for life. Section 498A of the IPC was specifically added in 1983, which is a section to protect women from cruelty, harassment and dowry related abuse (ibid). There is also the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, which prohibits the giving or taking of dowry.
In India, Dowry Prohibition Officers can be appointed in specific areas across the country where suspected high numbers of dowry related abuse can occur (section 8-b of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961). These officers are trained in profiling offenders and prosecution of persons committing offences under the Act.
2. Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, sadly, there are no counterpart statute provisions banning the practice of dowry. Rather the contrary, which can lead to the bride’s family being financially abused, the Maintenance Act 1999 and Civil Procedure Code 1889 as the Act imposes a duty on a parent to provide for the maintenance of all minor children, needy adult offspring aged 18-25 and disabled offspring. In Sri Lanka, most commonly in previous generations, it was the norm for daughters to be married off in their tender teen years or early 20s, therefore falling into the category that their parents would need to offer the bride’s in-laws a monetary favour for exchange in their daughter’s hand in marriage.
Thilini Wijetunge, in her paper ‘Why Does Marriage Only Have Implications For Women? Persisting Gender Inequalities’, poignantly portrays dowry abuse in Sri Lanka as follows:
“Sri Lanka is somewhat exceptional due to the educational achievements of its people, especially women… In many cases, women suffer when they marry, particularly due to dowry-related problems. Dowries play a major role in the lives of women who are of marriageable age in Sri Lankan society. While parents are not obligated by law to provide a dowry for their daughters, it is a tradition that some families continue to follow”.
Another paper, written by Danesh Jayatilaka and Kopalapillai Amirthalingam, ‘The Impact of Displacement on Dowries in Sri Lanka’ takes a very interesting approach into the cultural norms of the dowry system in Sri Lanka and how greed of dowry proposals can lead to violence for the bride. They consider “Dowry systems can also lead to post-marital violence due to the reaction of husbands and/or his family members to dowries which are considered insufficient.”
Usha Thevathas, shares her view on the dated dowry dramas that ensue family feuds in modern day society, stating what many, many of us young females are thinking, in her interview with Kumala Wijeratne:
“I don’t agree on giving a dowry,” Thevathas says, her eyes lighting up with anger. “It’s a crime. I would appreciate and respect a man who is bold enough to say no to dowry.
“What I need is a compatible partner, someone who will accept me as I am rather than look for a deal behind it,
“Marriage should not be a trade between two families. It’s time to change. It’s two lives that matter, not dowries.”
In Sri Lankan communities, both within Sri Lanka and abroad, the practice of introducing couples by way of parents is still a practice widely adopted. A “matchmaker”, Nandhini Wijayaratnam, states “education is an asset and a dowry by itself,” (ibid).
3. The UK
South Asian cultures of course play a predominant setting in the western world. In the UK, there are no specific pieces of legislation under English law to settle dowry disputes. It follows that if the bride and groom have entered into a civil marriage, the wife may request English civil courts to award the dowry in ancillary relief proceedings, in accordance with Section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, to ensure fairness and justice are upheld to both parties when conducting financial settlements in divorce proceedings. In other words, a woman can reclaim any dowry paid by her family to the groom’s on divorce, providing she can satisfy to the court she had given a dowry and that it remains in the control of her husband or his family.
With no solid protective measures by way of statute in the UK, this does lead South Asian brides and their families to exposure of financial abuse at the hands of greed bestowed by the groom’s family. Cultural traditions can be forgotten and the hope of a unity between a couple and their families takes a back seat whilst what monetary gain can be urged, takes precedent.
Money before marriage
In 2015, India reported that 7,634 women were killed in dowry – related incidents. It has been recorded as a statistic that a woman is killed every hour over dowry in India. Women have become items in which a groom and his family can obtain money, as opposed to being loved for their being and what they can offer to a marriage. Barrister Suki Johal (in the UK), stated women are not chattels – they are equals.
There is a call for banning dowry related arrangements in the UK, much as the same way in which forced marriages are banned in the UK, due to the excessive exploitation that takes place in the UK, particularly within South Asian communities (ibid). Dowries open young, ethnic women to much financial abuse before marriage has even started. It beckons the question that if in-laws could argue about money in such a manner prior to marriage, what violence would happen behind closed doors after saying “I do”…
My two cents
I strongly feel that the dowry system is one that should be banned and perpetrators should be punished for committing such offences. To me, it is a sheer violation of a young woman, and her family’s human rights and integrity. It is a major concern that the UK’s domestic laws are yet to scrutinise the negative impact dowry abuse carries with it and the domestic violence that occurs as a direct correlation from dowry arrangements. Perhaps an urgent reform in this area of law and social security is required in the UK as dowry related abuse is very much present and predominant in South Asian communities in the UK.
Money does not make the world go round and a woman cannot be bought with money.
This article is written with information correct as at 3rd June 2020