Empower Indian Women by Ending Bride-Price

Posted on September 16, 2013


It’s hard to fight against a deeply ingrained cultural tradition, but it’s high time that the parents of Indian girls washed their hands of the long-held custom of dowry, or “bride-price.”

As Carl Gierstorfer writes for CNN, India has some of the highest sex-ratio imbalances in the world, with only 8 girls to every 10 boys in some places.  This is accomplished through selective abortions, infanticide, and neglect of girl babies.  Too many parents just don’t want girls, and it’s not hard to see why:  every daughter represents a heavy financial burden when she comes of age.

For some reason, the traditional arranged marriage seems to be all about the girl’s family finding the best possible groom for her: someone with good professional prospects, from a good family, from a suitable  caste, and so on.  To secure this desirable groom, the bride’s family must expect to pay for a lavish wedding and give their daughter a hefty dowry to take with her to her new family (for a satirical look at how the bride-price works, check out Tanul Thakur’s tongue-in-cheek Dowry Calculator online).  And then the kicker, the bride traditionally leaves her parents and becomes part of the groom’s family, so all of her labor and support go to the security of her in-laws rather than her own parents.

Not that the in-laws always appreciate their gain.  Thousands of brides are killed every year by their husbands’ greedy families, over dissatisfaction with the dowries they received or over demands for continuing payments.  This often takes the form of literal “bride-burning,” in which the women are doused with household fuel such as kerosene and set alight, in the hopes of passing it off as an accident.

Sadly, dowry is most practiced by the poorer families who can least afford it.  Sons bring wealth and security for their aging parents, and enlarge the family.  Daughters are simply a burden to raise until they take their family’s wealth away.  As long as brides enrich the groom’s family and impoverish their own, parents will prefer sons and women will not be valued as human beings.   As horrid cases like the fatal Delhi gang-rape show, too many Indian men scarcely even see women as human beings (although those perpetrators have been found guilty and sentenced to death, a rare thing in India).

So yeah, who would prefer a daughter over a son?

Both the caste system and the dowry system have long been outlawed in India, but both systems are alive and well.  VERY alive and well.  It’s a demonstration of the fact that laws on paper are insufficient to end such practices; what is needed is a fundamental social shift in attitudes, and unfortunately that will require the government somehow to summon up the will to enforce the laws.  So far, they have not risen to the occasion.