Giving dowry won’t ‘secure’ your daughter’s future, and calling it a ‘gift’ doesn’t change that

Many families believe that lavish weddings and expensive ‘gifts’ will bring respect to the bride and her family, but this is problematic, say experts.
Giving dowry won’t ‘secure’ your daughter’s future, and calling it a ‘gift’ doesn’t change that
Giving dowry won’t ‘secure’ your daughter’s future, and calling it a ‘gift’ doesn’t change that
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A chartered accountant from Tamil Nadu and a young college dropout from Kerala - just two of the numerous lives lost every year to dowry in India.

While Divya was sent back to her doctor husband’s family by her own parents, every time she came back crying about abuse, until it led to her own murder, Salsha couldn’t take the constant demand for more money any longer, and decided to take her own life just three months into the wedding.

Divya and Salsha are but examples of this menace in India. The practice of giving and taking dowry was outlawed 56 years ago, but it’s an open secret that to this day, families of brides continue to give gold, money and other big-ticket ‘gifts’ to grooms and their families, not only at the time of the wedding, but for years afterwards.

And until this open giving and taking of dowry in whatever name stops, experts say, we will continue to hear about dowry deaths.

Lavish wedding doesn’t guarantee a good life

For many families there is an implicit belief that lavish weddings and expensive ‘gifts’ will bring respect to the bride and her family, and ensure that women are treated well in their marital homes.

Sudha Ramalingam, a senior lawyer at the Madras High Court, points out that this is a problematic belief on many levels.

“You cannot buy a good marriage. No show of wealth, gifts of dowry will ensure that your daughter will have peace and affection in her marital home,” she argues. “It also sets a wrong precedent for others, including lower socio-economic classes. They believe that they should also put on obscene displays of wealth in marriages to maintain or earn a better social standing. None of this is really going to ensure the well-being of the women in these marriages,” she adds.

Brides’ parents should stop justifying the giving of dowry

Lawyers say that in many cases, brides’ families are complicit in the giving of dowry.

K Santhakumari, President of the Tamil Nadu Federation of Women Lawyers says, “The first scenario is where the man’s family openly makes demands and in connivance with the woman’s parents, the dowry is given. The second case is where it is considered a given by the woman’s family also, and even put on display to show their monetary prowess,” she says.

Wedding gifts of the son of the imam of Delhi. Photo by Jorge Royan via Wikimedia Commons

She points out there are now newer and covert ways of demanding dowry. “For instance, the groom’s family may say that they wedding will happen only after a house is bought for the future of the couple. Or the groom may insist for a working wife with a certain salary which must be handed over to him or his family for household expenses,” she says.

Not a ‘one-time payment’

Ranjana Kumari, Director of Center for Social Research and the author of Brides are not for Burning, adds that demands for dowry or ‘gifts’ from the bride’s family are rarely one-time demands. The demands, as in Salsha and Divya’s case, do not stop after marriage. “Moreover, the women are hardly given the courage or sanction by their own families to walk out of the marriage. This leads to further harassment, and even murder,” she says.

Give women property, not dowry

Experts point out that legal provisions created to secure women’s property rights often get subverted to sustain the practice of dowry.

The concept of ‘Streedhan’ is specified in section 14 of the Hindu Succession Act. The provision states that, “any property possessed by a female Hindu, whether acquired before or after the commencement of this Act, shall be held by her as full owner thereof and not as a limited owner.” It includes both movable and immovable property, which could be inherited, purchased, a gift from anyone including relatives before, at or after marriage, or received in lieu of maintenance, among other things.

Streedhan essentially refers to property given voluntarily to a woman, with no coercion involved. Santhakumari says that this Streedhan can be reclaimed by the woman, and withholding it from her is a punishable offence. “If the couple gets separated because of dowry harassment, she can demand these ‘gifts’ back from the husband and his family,” she says.

Sudha Ramalingam points out however, that this provision, which is meant to better facilitate women’s their right to property, is often used as a “back door for dowry.”

By Devendra Makkar via Flickr

Ranjana says that while Streedhan and dowry are clearly demarcated from each other by the law, women’s families passing off dowry as ‘gifts’ for Streedhan is problematic. “The better thing to do would be to give the woman a share in the property, which is in her name. That way it remains in her control. However, if you gift something like a car, it may not be in her control,” she explains.

Effective penalizing

Lawyers and activists argue that as much progress has been made thanks to the Prohibition of Dowry Act, there is still a long way to go. In this context, Santhakumari points out that the Supreme Court’s recent directives about Section 498A, dealing with domestic violence, are a great setback. On the pretext of preventing the law from being misused, she argues, redressal has been set further out of reach for women who face harassment for dowry from get immediate redressal.

She also argues that the law should hold accountable not only those who receive dowry but also those who give it. She admits however, that it is difficult to clearly distinguish voluntary gifts from those given as dowry under any pretext.

She does suggest, however, that transparent and accurate records of gifts exchanged at the time of the wedding could help curb the practice. While this is already a requirement under the law, she points out, it is rarely implemented.

Under the Dowry Prohibition Act, gifts given to the bride and groom at the time of marriage, should be compiled into a list. This will ensure that the woman can lay claim to these gifts, if and when the need arises.

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