If you look at the development index and Literacy rate of Kerala, it is one the most advanced states in India. Rich with natural resources and expatriate income keralites are also wealthy enough, despite the lack of industries operating there. You will hardly hear about someone who died of starvation in Kerala, compared to the situation in states like UP and Bihar.
Also despite the huge numbers of hindus, christians and muslims in the state, there is a strong sense of communal harmony which exists there. So naturally for outsiders Kerala model is something which could be emulated. No doubt this is possible, provided some of the ancient social evils which still exists in this place are abolished. This post is about one such social evil. Dowry.
The word dowry comes from the word ‘Dower’ which means a gift being given by Bride’s family to Groom. Dowry is an ancient system which was practiced widely in Europe and Asia even during BC period. The objective of dowry was to provide the groom a means of sustenance to take care of bride properly. So in simple terms dowry is a post paid bribe paid to Groom, not to harm the bride. Over a period of time, this entire theme got manipulated according to religious doctrines and as a result it became a tool for male dominance and female exploitation. It even was given a legal status, by depriving women from having a share in ancestral property.
Scenario in Kerala
Now lets look at how dowry is being practiced in Kerala. Dowry is not merely a sum in Kerala. It is a symbol of status, a valuation done according to your educational qualifications and wealth accrued, a symbol of showing bride’s wealth…it has many dimensions and the educated lot is prudent enough to give more and more ‘logical’ justifications to the same.
According to an exhaustive study conducted by an NGO called Jananeethi Dowry in Kerala is being offered by many ways such and the majority being:
- Liquid cash
- Property (house or land)
- Ornaments (mostly Gold)
- Fixed deposits
According to Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961,
"Any person who gives, takes or abets dowry is punishable with imprisonment of not less than five years and fine which shall not be less than 15,000 rupees or the value of the dowry, whichever is more."
Mere demand for dowry is punishable in India and a person demanding dowry can get imprisonment of six months to two years and a fine of up to 10,000 rupees. Any agreement between the parties involved is void under the act.
Now you might be wondering despite all these laws, how dowry is being practiced in Kerala. This is being done through Marriage arrangers or ‘Broker’s as they are belovedly called. Majority of marriages in state are being fixed by these brokers. So neither the Groom’s side demand dowry directly, nor the bride’s side offer dowry directly. There are fixed market rate for the grooms and until the bride’s side agrees to it informally, brokers wont finalize the marriage.
For eg: Currently an MBBS doctor can fetch anywhere between 25-50 lacs rupees of dowry where as an engineer goes for 10-20 lacs on an average. (Only God knws hw this figures are reached, but in simple terms they denotes the amount spent on grooms education and the social security he provides to bride based on that)
Similarly if the bride is beautiful, educated and has a job then the dowry rate could also go down (as they can milk her income after she is married)
** this figures are indicative. Heard that as MBBS seats are expensive now, there are cases where groom demanded more than a crore rupees as dowry.
Repercussions of Dowry act are beyond imagination. As dowry prevails even in the lowest strata of society, mostly the entire earnings of a family is being spent as dowry. This even leads to girl child abortions, as people consider having a girl child as an additional burden. In many cases elder brother marry to get dowry so that he can pay it as dowry for her sister’s marriage. This is a vicious cycle and I wonder how people still practice it without giving any serious thought. During 90’s, there were a series of news stories on ‘Kitchen gas cylinder blasts’ and subsequent death of the bride in the family. Most of them were the acts of those grooms, due to the unpaid dowry amounts promised by Bride’s family. Read this to know more about atrocities committed on women in the name of dowry.
Now let us see the most common justifications given by educated class for giving dowry: (source: jananeethi study)
- It is bride’s share in parental property
- To setup a life of their own
- As rightful expenditure for getting such a good alliance
- To follow tradition
As mentioned, the most used reason for giving dowry is ‘It is bride’s share in parental property’. Now let us examine the hollowness of this claim. Imagine a women being given Rs. 20 lac in 2009 as dowry. As of now, by giving this amount ‘parents’ have paid off the share of property to her and she is not eligible to ask for any share in the property after her parents death. Now consider that on the year of her marriage, parents were around 50 years old. Looking at average life expectancy, they die by the age of 70. This means, after this 20 years their property will be divided to children, which has now been appreciated by atleast 100 times (5% appreciation per year, nt looking at compounded). So when the ancestral property is finally divided in the year of 2029, it might amount to several crores of rupees and it would entirely goto the sons (they do have a rightful sharem as mostly parents are being taken care of by sons, especially younger son). But this also makes that 20 lacs given to daughter as dowry in 2009 so miniscule compared to present value of property. A never ending fight and legal battle thus begin.
Am not sure how well I could articulate this, but practically this happens in almost every family in Kerala and is the root cause of enemity between siblings. (I can vouch for this as Ive seen this personally in my relatives).
So looking at these scenarios, does this prevailing dowry system provide any advantage to anyone involved ? It is mere money circulation without benefiting anyone in long term.
How can this be abolished ?
I believe Dowry cant be removed completely from society by using Law enforcement. We need another Rajarammohan Roy to abolish this social evil. Currently, religious leaders are the capable lot to enforce this. Most in the affluent class still practice dowry just to get along with the existing societal systems. No one has the courage to stand up against it. Because, by doing so they end up delaying their daughter’s marriage, as none would agree to marry her without dowry. So a combination of strict governmental laws and religious doctrines preventing giving or accepting dowry is the best way to eliminate this social evil. Am optimistic about this, seeing amazing initiatives like this.
Interesting fact is not all states in India are under dowry clutches. For eg: In most Gujarat communities, giving or accepting dowry is considered humiliating. May be we could also take some clues from them.
I purposefully didnt discuss many other supporting factors which fuel this dowry system, thinking I might just go overboard.
Would love to see your personal experiences and takes on Dowry in Kerala.
To know more, Download this amazing study report by Jananeethi on Dowry in Kerala.