Dowries have been banned in India for more than 60 years, but the practice persists — and not only in rural and more traditional parts of the country.

Traditionally, a dowry referred to gifts in the form of cash or goods that parents gave their daughter to provide her with more financial security in her marriage.

But now experts say families are transferring cash, gold, cars, real estate property or other assets to the groom’s family as a condition of the marriage.

India’s dowry system dates back in some form for thousands of years, when women who were unable to inherit property under Hindu laws were provided with a dowry registered under her name during marriage.

Over time, the practice became associated with violence against women linked to the coercion of dowry from her family. Crimes included physical abuse and harassment, as well as deaths related to dissatisfaction over the amount of dowry received. So, it was criminalized under the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act with a fine and prison sentence of at least five years.

But the law was ineffective, say experts, so in the 1980s lawmakers introduced sections into India’s penal code allowing authorities to charge men or their family members with a “dowry death.” The charge carries a prison sentence of seven years to life.But despite the tougher penalties, the practice of dowries still remains deeply entrenched in society as an integral part of marriage.

Experts say it’s hard to clamp down on the controversial custom because it has become intertwined with one’s reputation and social standing.”People fear they will be looked down upon if they don’t display wealth in their daughter’s marriage,” said Pillai.

The custom has also been normalized under the guise of “gift-giving” — blurring the line between what is traditionally considered a “dowry” and what could be classed as a gift voluntarily given to the groom’s family from the bride.

Shahida Kamal, a member of the Kerala Women’s Commission, describes this as a “loophole” in the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act. She says presents such as gold, land or cars gifted by families don’t come under the provision of the act. “Here starts the dilemma of pretending (to be) a wealthy family and (satisfying) the groom’s family by any financial means,” she said.

According to the World Bank, a dowry was given in 95% of the 40,000 marriages that took place in rural India between 1960 and 2008.

In 2019, the country recorded more than 13,000 complaints over dowries and more than 7,100 dowry deaths, according to the National Crime Records Bureau of India.Of the 3,516 dowry deaths that were tried in court in 2019, only 35.6% led to a criminal conviction. Experts say it can be difficult for families to prove that harassment over a dowry led to a woman’s death.


Editor’s note: Amy Sood’s article was originally published in CNN on 1st August 2021.

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Published: 1st August 2021.