Dowry-related domestic abuse is still prevalent in India, despite years of feminist campaigning.
Researchers at the University of Portsmouth have found dowry is still regularly practiced in parts of the country, and dissatisfaction with the amount of dowry provided contributes to the domestic abuse suffered by newly married women, as well as to gender inequalities on a wider scale.
The study also showed that mother-in-laws were the main harassers and perpetrators of violence against young women nearly 50 per cent of the time.
Dowry is the exchange of money and/or goods from the bride’s family to the groom’s at the point of marriage. Families give as much as possible, which in some cases will involve selling land and homes or taking out loans.
The study carried out by researchers in the University’s School of Languages and Area Studies is one of very few carried out on this topic since the last substantial study ten years ago. During this period, the rise of westernisation and modernisation in India has led to increased employment and education opportunities for women.
Women’s organisations in India have moved away from anti-dowry campaigning and focused more on increasing women’s independence through better access to healthcare and advice, education and employment, and encouraging women to take on political roles.
However, the study shows that these methods have been unsuccessful in reducing the practice of dowry and the domestic abuse women often suffer when the dowry amount is not satisfactory.
“Our findings depressingly show that little has improved in the last decade, and dowry remains a fundamental problem in women’s lives,” said Dr Tamsin Bradley, lead researcher.
“The data shows that investing energy in securing better gender equality has not decreased rates of dowry and related abuse.”
In India, dowry is traditionally used as a way of displaying and increasing a family’s status. As the daughter mirrors the status of her family, it is also seen as a way to preserve the family honour. With the increase in wealth of those of a lower social status, more families can now afford to give a dowry, and families of a lower social status often use it to emulate the behaviour and status of the upper classes.
The study involved interviews with different age groups of both men and women. The older women said young brides not being properly prepared for marriage nor being able or willing to fit in with the behaviour of their new family were key factors contributing to domestic violence. Of the younger women who reported experience of abuse, 45 per cent said their mother-in-law was the perpetrator of the violence.
“Our research highlights that many women, once they reach the status of mother-in-law, are so invested in the patriarchal system that they become the main harassers and perpetrators of violence against young women,” said Dr Bradley.
The study was conducted in Engandiyour village in Kerala, south India, and was split into two phases. The first phase involved structured interviews with 47 women and eight men under the age of 35, from various religions and social class groupings. The participants were asked 20 questions about their experiences of married life and the part dowry played in this. The women were also asked whether they had experienced any form of violence, physical or psychological.
During the second phase, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with three focus groups, seven women aged 18–35, a local prominent marriage broker, and two members of a high profile women’s organisation in Kerala. The three focus groups comprised a local women’s self-help group whose members were aged 40–60, a group of women aged 18–35, and a group of three Hindu male community leaders. These interviews could be more personalised and allowed the researchers to be more flexible with their questioning.
Most of the younger women interviewed saw dowry as one of the main problems faced by women, but also had no intention of stopping the practice. Those who had experienced mental or physical abuse linked to their dowry still intended to give a dowry when their daughter married, as they feared negative repercussions if they didn’t do this.
Dr Bradley said: “Dowry is shown to shape a marriage system that limits women’s opportunities as well as subjecting them to high instances of abuse.”
The study did find holes in the patriarchal system, and ways of widening those holes. Although most of the men interviewed supported the practice of dowry and didn’t see it as a problem, their views differed on the role of the woman once she is married, with some men supporting the idea of a married woman working and advancing her education. Some of the younger men seemed indifferent at the thought of dowry not being practised.
Dr Bradley believes this is a positive sign, and suggests the way forward includes engaging more with men, especially younger men, whose views about dowry could be influenced for the better.
“If young men have greater exposure to both the arguments against dowry and the evidence which highlights its negative impact, their views may be transformed.”
Other suggestions include strengthening the voice of those women who oppose the practice of dowry, highlighting to whole communities the problems dowry can cause for women, and monitoring the shift in attitudes towards dowry and marriage to see whether these actions are working.
Dr Bradley said: “If more cracks can be forced in the patriarchal idea of dowry being a necessity, the transformation that is so needed may finally happen. Dowry is a marker of women’s status more widely, so feminists hope that in eradicating dowry, more equal gender relations will replace it and in turn we will begin to see significant reductions in violence against women.”
The paper ‘Dowry and women’s lives in Kerala: what has changed in a decade?’ was published in the journal Contemporary South Asia.