Dowry: When social norms prevail over law
A World Bank (WB) study, published last week, has found that even though dowry has been illegal in India since 1961, dowry payments in rural India villages have not just persisted but also remained stable over the past few decades. The analysis is based on data from the 2006 Rural Economic and Demographic Survey (REDS), the most recent source of dowry data. The researchers compute net dowry as the difference between the value of gifts given by the bride’s family to the groom or his family and the value of gifts given by the groom’s family to the bride and her family.
The study, which looked at 40,000 marriages between 1960 and 2008, has four key findings. One, average net dowry has been stable over time with some inflation before 1975 and after 2000; second, the proportion of marriages with a negative net dowry, that is, where the groom’s family paid more to the bride’s family, is small; third, dowry is prevalent in all major religious groups; fourth, although the trend in average dowry is flat at the national level, there are substantial differences across states, with Kerala having the highest average dowry.
While India has transformed since 2008, and hopefully the scale of dowry has dipped, the persistence of the trend shows that social norms have prevailed over law, particularly the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. Experts say that the dowry law has been ineffective (and prone to misuse) because of four main reasons: Vague statutory language; weak enforcement of existing laws; cultural attitudes towards women; and economic discrimination of women. According to the NCRB 2019 report, there were 7,166 reported dowry-related deaths in 2018. India has made progress in battling dowry, but each case of dowry and each instance of dowry-related violence is one too many. The battle for social reform against dowry picked up in the 19th century; 21st century India must conclude it.
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