Dowry Deaths

The practice of dowries (the transfer of wealth from a bride’s family to a groom’s family during marriage) (Oldenburg 19) has been a part of Hindu culture since ancient times, even being mentioned in religious texts such as the Manusmrti (Channa and Willigen 370). Dowries generally come in a form of monetary transfer, household goods or even land claims. Although sometimes significant, historically the gifts and wealth transferred in a dowry were mainly small tokens of good fortune for the couple and the families involved. Moving into modern times, the dowry has since become a major factor when families negotiate marriages, often involving large transfers of wealth (Srinivasa and Lee 1108). Dowries do not usually consist of a single transaction, but rather a series of many payments (Tambiah 92). This spread of dowry payments can often prove to be problematic for the bride and her family if her family cannot meet the demands put in place by the groom’s family. In a growing number of cases, if the dowry demands are not met, the groom and his family subject the bride to extreme harassment, sometimes leading to the suicide of the bride, or in other cases the murder of the bride by the groom’s family. These brides may be burned to death using kerosene (a fuel used for kitchen stoves in India) as fuel (Sanghavi et al. 1282). These murders are coined as either dowry death or bride burnings.

Dowries can be interpreted differently in various situations; they have been described as tools to define the social roles and property claims of women in their new households, as public declarations of new relationships, or even as a form of anticipated inheritance for the bride from her family. Another interpretation of the dowry is that it suggests a hierarchy in marriage and indicates a lower status of women in Hindu tradition (Channa and Willigen 371). The idea of a hierarchy and an agreed upon status differential between brides and grooms is problematic, because it promotes a system that disfavors women, and this kind of system can lead to domestic violence, murder and suicide of brides. In earlier Hindu practice, dowry death did not occur as often as it does today. This increase in dowry death seems to be in direct correlation with the increase in consumerism in India. As consumerism increases, many grooms and their families see a dowry as a vehicle to obtain wealth quickly (Srinivasan and Lee 1110). Consumerism drives the inflation of dowry demands, thus applying much greater pressure onto the bride’s family to provide larger dowries. Increasing consumerism is not the only factor causing the increase in dowry costs. The marriage pool in India is undergoing a marriage squeeze, due to a preference for male offspring, paired with females marrying into higher status families, therefore creating an unequal mix of potential grooms and brides. This allows for grooms to increase their dowry demands because their just is not enough higher status men for women to marry (Srinivasan and Lee 1109). As stated above, the inability to meet these demands can lead to harassment from the groom’s family.

In 1961, and later amended in 1986, a piece of legislation was passed called “The Dowry Prohibition Act”, which essentially made it illegal to give or take a dowry (Channa and Willigen 370). There is not a lot of data on dowry death rates in India; it was not until around 1985 when data on this issue began to get documented in parliament and through the media. In 1985, there were a reported 452 deaths by bride burning, in 1986 there were 476, and by 1987 those numbers jumped to 1,319 cases of bride burnings reported in Indian police records. Even then, hospital records around that time indicate a far larger number of 3rd degree burn cases than the police records would state (Channa and Willigen 369). If one looks ahead to 1996-1997, the numbers jumped from 6,758 to 7,543 (Samuel 187). Based on what the police records report, The Dowry Prohibition Act is not doing what it was intended to do; in fact it is doing the exact opposite. One would expect the passage of legislation and laws prohibiting and criminalizing dowries and bride burning would create a safer environment for women in India; However, the act proved to be a failure to the point where “The Times of India” released an unofficial report in 1984 claiming that a bride burning occurs every 12 hours in India; A separate report in 1997 suggested that 25,000 dowry deaths occur annually (Samuel 187). These numbers, although estimates, are extremely high and suggest India needs to undergo some social reform to provide a safer environment for the lives of brides and females in general.

The social landscape in India is not uniform over the entire subcontinent; it can be roughly divided into the more educated states in the south, and the more patriarchal and traditional states in the north. There is also a noticeable disparity between social ideologies between rural and city landscapes (Hackett 269-270). A few studies have been done to track the rates of domestic violence in India in relation to its heterogeneous nature, but it has not been studied as extensively as it has in developed western societies. In the north, women are considered monetary burdens leading to a higher rate of discrimination against women, while in the south there is substantially less of a financial burden involved with women, mainly because of their contribution to the working force (Channa and Willigen 372). The differences in social landscape across India corresponds with dowry death rates across the subcontinent; in the north, dowry death rates are higher due to the intrinsic system in place that disfavors women, where in the south, dowry death is less of a problem, albeit ever increasing.

A feminist approach to deciphering the dowry death data that we have suggests that in states where females feel more empowered, there is a lower rate of dowry death. Empowerment can be classified as females who are educated, exposed to more liberal concepts or even play a more active role in the work force, all factors which occur more often in the south. On the other side of this coin, states that display higher patriarchal values may have a higher dowry death rate (Hackett 283). Another approach would be to look at a family violence approach, which suggests that in states where economic stress is highest, we would expect to see a higher rate of dowry death. Both of these approaches hold truth, but the best way to examine the dispersal of dowry death through India would be a combined approach, using both the feminist and family violence approach. This is called an ecological approach, where we can consider that both female empowerment and economics play a role in the occurrences of dowry death (Hackett 283). Because of the lack of statistical data on domestic violence in India, it is not yet clear what the major contributors are to dowry death (Hackett 284).

Dowry death is unfortunately a severe problem in Indian society, a problem big enough that it has been recognized by the judicial system in India. Sadly, the legal actions taken by the Indian government to eliminate the practice of exchanging dowries in an attempt to limit dowry death, has failed miserably. It seems that one of the best ways to combat the ever growing number of dowry deaths would be for active promotion of equality between men and women. Regrettably, it is not as easy as it seems, as a deep engrained cultural practice in Hindu tradition, the dowry will not be eradicated and will be met with resistance at every attempt to eliminate this patriarchal practice.



Goody, Jack and S.J. Tambiah (1973) Bridewealth and Dowry. London: Cambridge University Press.

Hackett, Michelle T. (2011) “Domestic Violence against Women: Statistical Analysis of Crimes across India”. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Vol. 42, No. 2: 287-288.

Oldenburg, Veena (2002) Dowry Murder The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Samuel, Edith (2002) “Dowry and dowry harassment in India: An assessment based on modified capitalist patriarchy.” African and Asian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3: 187-229.

Sanghavi, Prachi, Kavi Bhalla and Veena Das (2009) “Fire-related deaths in India in 2001: a retrospective analysis of data.” Lancelet, Vol. 373, No. 9671: 1282-1288.

Srinivasan, Padma and Gary R. Lee (2004) “The dowry system in Northern India: Women’s attitudes and social change.” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 66, No.5: 1108-1117.

Willigen, John and V. Channa (1991) “Law, Custom, and Crimes against Women: The Problem of Dowry Death in India.” Human Organization: Winter 1991, Vol. 50, No. 4:  369-377.


Related Topics

  • Sati
  • Hindu Marriage
  • Women in Hinduism
  • Domestic Violence in India
  • The Dowry Prohibition Act


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Article written by: Brett Hutchinson (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content