Dowry: An Overview

Dowry: An Overview

Author: Steve Gonsalves H,
 3rd year BA LLB,
Christ University, Bangalore.

India is a very culture rich country which has numerous traditions and customs that are practiced from time immemorial. Some of them uplift the image of India even in the international scenario but some of them are barbaric and heinous. Among the latter kind of practices, a majority of them are meted out towards women. The same nation that refers to women as goddess and mother. The nation, rivers, nature are all tagged as women by poets and great men, but yet, most cruel and heinous crimes are committed against them. Dowry is one of the most under-rated (everybody gives and takes dowry in public in daylight) yet most uncivilized practice that leads to various other social evils like female infanticide, female foeticide, child marriage and so on which are discussed in the research paper. Dowry is the movable and immovable property that a bride brings with her on marriage, often at the explicit demands of her husband and/or his parents or guardians. It may consist of clothes, jewellery, household utensils and furniture, carpets, electrical equipment, decorative items, vehicles, cash, savings certificates and financial support for education abroad or for setting up a business. It can also include property such as land, or a house, shop or factory. These gifts are not just for the bride; the bridegroom and his family are also honoured. When the asked dowry amount is not paid, the woman has to face harassment, abuse that would either lead to her committing suicide or being murdered by the people in her marital home. This research aims to study why dowry is still continuing though everyone knows that it is a social evil. It also looks into legislation and laws passed related to dowry and gives a brief analysis of it.
Keywords: Dowry, Practice, Law.

Marriage is an important and integral part of a person’s life in the Indian society and has continued to be considered as a sacred union. The significance of marriage can be elucidated in the words of Manu as “a spouseless person is a leafless tree”. In most patrilineal society, the practice of dowry has plagued the society, as the ramifications of the practice continues to haunt the present society, it can be construed that the law governing the same requires deliberation and reconsideration. Dowry is the wealth gifted by the bride’s family to the bridegroom or his family as a condition of marriage. The wealth would mostly be in the form of durable goods, cash, and movable or immovable property. The initial rationale behind this custom was to help the newly married couple to discharge the responsibilities arising out of the wedlock. In ancient times, the perception held was that the dowry would be of help in tough times as it would serve as  a means of support to the widow in case of the unfortunate death of the husband. Sometimes, dowry has served as a form of protection of the bride against the possibility of ill treatment by her husband and his family.

The existence of the practice in ancient times can be proved by relying on the historical evidence put forward in the book titled “Some Reflection on Dowry”. Dowry was practised in ancient India in the guise of “Shreedhan” and “Kanyadan”. The practise of “Bride Price”  was observed by Tamil brahmins. In the kingdom of Vijayanagar in 1200 A.D, the punishment prescribed for giving or receiving dowry, hints at the existence of laws prohibiting the practice in the ancient era.[1] By tracing the practice from what it intended to facilitate, to what negative role it has assumed, one can justify the need for the legislative framework. The worst affected are the ones from poor households. Due to this same fact, the Indian government recognised the practise of dowry to be a social evil and laid down measures to curb down its practice through the Dowry Prohibition act of 1961.[2] Many other legislations followed this backed with case laws to defend women from being ill-treated due to the practice of dowry. Unfortunately, the exchange of dowry happens even today in open light but nobody stands up against it.  

Why Dowry Exists and Why Does it Continue?

Traditionally, dowry was given as a token of good wishes to the newly wed couple. But today, dowry has t to substantial transfer of wealth from the bride’s family to the groom’s. [3] This shift tells us that the practice of dowry has only gained ground from then and it still is. Various factors contribute to the active practice of dowry. The causes are as follows:
  1. Greed: Dowry demands are often made in lump sum and this is made in support of the groom’s education, family background and financial stability. Demand is put forth by the groom’s family shamelessly and has to be agreed by the bride’s family maybe with a slight chance of negotiation if they are lucky. If the proposal is turned down by the family, their societal value degrades and a black mark on the family.
  2. Social structure: The patriarchal society in India favours the practice of Dowry as it perceives that women are subordinate to men in their mental and physical capacity. With that established, women are not supposed to be domesticated and made to do only household works and not supposed to assign any important roles in the government or any other places. Such stereotypes cause women to be treated as financial burden on father as well as the husband. In order to compensate for losses that occur to the husband, dowry is considered to be one of the necessities of marriage.
  3. Religion: Religion also plays an important role in the existence of the practice of dowry. Some religions practice suitability of a person with another person. Some matches could be hard to find and this gives the groom’s family an upper hand during the dowry bargain.
  4. Status of women in the society: the idea of inferiority of women is so deep-rooted in the psyche of the nation, that the actuality of women being treated as mere commodity is accepted even by the women themselves. In such a situation, the end goal of a woman’s existence is to be a good wife and mother. Marriage, therefore, an important sacrament in a woman’s life, has to take place at any cost and for that dowry is paid as a compensation for the ‘loss’ which is going to incur to the groom’s family.
  5. Illiteracy: lack of formal education is another cause for the prevalence of the dowry system. A large number of women are deliberately kept from schools either due to certain superstitions or from the belief that educating girls will take away from their eligibility as good wives or that their end goal is to be a good wife and any money spent on their education adds on to the already existing list unnecessary money spent on the girl child.
  6. Urge to adhere to customs and traditions: Indians value customs and traditions, especially when it was being followed for generations. They follow them blindly and try their best to adhere to it without questioning the use or the necessity of it. Dowry also follows similar lines. This practice has become the norm for marriages to take place as it had been practiced for generations together without a change
  7. Something to boast about: Dowry has become something that the bride’s father can boast about. The more dowry a person gives, the higher is his position in the social hierarchy. The person earns respect on the amount of gold and wealth he gives out during his daughter’s marriage.  The groom’s family in turn earn respect for the wealth brought into the family by the bride, which shows how desirable the boy was in the marriage market.[4]
  8. Women as supporters of dowry: mostly women are being suppressed by the issue of dowry, and in the book “Women’s Problem” by Dr. Siva Arasmuthu, it was stated that it is the mother-in law who demands for more dowry most of the time, forgetting that she too is a woman. In addition to this, in that book she stated that mother-in-law and sister-in-law are more responsible for dowry death and harassment as compared to the men in the family. Some women also support the dowry system and provide hefty dowry to their daughter by considering it as an investment to reap more dowry for the son’s marriage.[5]
  9. Qualifications achieved by the groom: For marriages to dowry is required irrespective of anything but the amount of dowry differs from groom to groom. If the groom has good educational qualification or a very good job, his value in the marriage market is boosted up and stands out as compared to the other. For every positive in the groom’s CV, the dowry shoots up.[6]

Consequences of Dowry

As it can be inferred from the above observations that the practice of dowry which compels families to go beyond their financial capabilities to practice this tradition. Due to these reasons, a girl is often perceived as a major source of drain in a family’s economy. These social evils have further resulted in horrific cases of female foeticides, female infanticides and abandonment of girl child. There are instances of a girl child being choked to death in a few hours of its birth, if she escapes it, she is killed as an infant or abandoned in dustbins, sewages or public places. It is assumed in the majority of cases that mostly the first girl survives and the second girl would manage to escape but the third girl would be killed invariably.[7] Having established that a boy child is preferred over a girl child, if the girl survives from this mishap, she is marginalized and the boy is given all the possible advantages. She is subject to abuse at household like beatings and hours of hard labour which she is supposed to spend playing or learning.
The earlier the marriage gets over the lesser the dowry to be paid. Foreseeing this factor, many girls are married off at a very young age. It is also believed that young girls can be better shaped to run a household as compared to a woman. The practice of dowry, being a social evil on its own, thus fuels the growth of child marriages as well.[8]

The girl’s family often ends up being bankrupt after the marriage because they had to bring the lumpsum amount that was to be offered as dowry. Dowry is not a one-time affair. The husband and his family when required money would pressurize the wife’s family for it. They consider the wife’s family as an unending source for their finance. When the family is unable to cough up the sums asked by the husband’s family now and then, harassment in the forms of verbal abuse and domestic violence at the hand of the husband and the in-laws.[9] In India, 5 women are subject to dowry related torture and cruelty every hour.[10]In such situations, the woman is compelled to get the money arranged by her natal family. In this situation, the wife assigns the role of a messenger to both the families. This would not only make the woman suffer from neglect and abuse, she would also be going under tremendous stress which would affect her psychologically as she herself is issuing threats that are made by her husband’s family to her natal family. Studies prove that a wife’s mental health is strongly related to the husband’s satisfaction on the dowry given to him.[11]
Another important, heinous and barbaric attitude that comes along with the practice of dowry is dowry deaths. Dowry is like an inversion of sati: in sati, as the ultimate gift to her husband, the ideal wife jumps into her husband’s funeral pyre and burns into ashes along with his corpse, as s sacrifice of religious honour and communal satisfaction, while in dowry burnings, the bride is set ablaze by her husband or husband’s family, as an expression of dishonour Before the parliament, two state legislations existed in the mid-1950s to combat the evil practice of dowry.[12]  It was in the year 1961, that the parliament of India for the first time passed a law which primarily focuses on dowry. It was not the sole decision of the legislation makers to give such legislation to ensure the safety of the women in the country, but the women organisations and international pressure on them that obligated them to do such act.[13] On 20th May,1961, the Dowry Prohibition Act came into force. Apart from this act, this social evil is covered in three sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), namely section 406 which propagates recovery of streedhan, section 304B which holds the punishment for causing dowry death and section 498A which considers cruelty on account of dowry. There is also section 113A of the Indian evidence act which is regarding abetment of suicide by a married woman and section 113B of the Indian Evidence Act that deals with dowry death, if the married woman died within 7 years of marriage. Due to the dissatisfaction caused by her to the husband’s family.[14] A study conducted in the year 2010, it was learnt that every 90 minutes a bride is burned down.[15] In the same year, there were 8,391 cases reported and many more among them were not told out because it was “shameful to the family of the bride if they ever publicize it or complain about it”, due to which thousands of deaths are still not accounted for.[16]

Laws for Prohibitions of Dowry

(1) The Dowry Prohibition Act,1961.

The Dowry Prohibition Act was passed in 1961 and has been amended since then, with the most recent amendment being the one in 1985, because the earlier provision did not work as effectively as it was intended to. The primary aim in formulating the act was to put an end to the practice of bride burning and to keep a check on the practice of the dowry system. As stated in the act itself, “The object of this Bill is to prohibit the evil practice of giving and taking of dowry” with the recognition that “the increasing number of dowry deaths is a matter of serious concern.”[17] The Dowry Prohibition act includes the following features:
  • Dowry defined in section 2 of this act and this section is referred to by the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005.
  • The act penalizes any person who gives, takes or abets to give or take dowry.  
  • Dowry taken before, during or after marriage should be returned to the girl within three months of the date of wedding in the first case and should be returned within three months from the time the dowry was accepted in the other cases.
  • In the case of a dowry given for marriage when the girl was a minor, it must be returned to the girl within three months from the date she turns 18 years old.
  • Dowry given by the girl’s family, if not given to girl, but entrusted to another person, it must be returned to the girl at the right time. He or she cannot sell, spend, use or give the dowry to anyone else. If the girl dies before the dowry is given back to her, it should be given to her legal heirs by the person to whom the dowry was entrusted to.
  • Failing to return the dowry to the girl in the prescribed time laid down by law, the girl can file a complaint against the person who would attract punishment with imprisonment from six months to two years or a fine of Rs 5000 upto Rs 10,000 or both.
  • The act also provides for instituting Dowry officers who work in a specific jurisdiction as the State government deems fit to ensure that people comply with the provision of the act.  

The above mentioned are the salient features of the act.[18] The main weakness in the act is that it holds the acceptor as well as the giver of the act equally guilty. This provision acts as a barricade for the parents of the bride from registering a complaint when they are compelled to give dowry. The act of giving dowry also has to be criticised, but when a person is guilty himself, he would not provide evidence to put himself in trouble. The amendment act has 2 significant changes in it. Firstly, there is no cap on the time period as to when a complaint can be registered and secondly, the court is authorised to act on its own knowledge or complaint of police or any women’s organisation or the women herself or her family. In addition to this, the act makes the offence cognizable, non-compoundable and non-bailable.

(2) section 304B of IPC, section 113A and 113B of Indian Evidence Act,1972.

A woman who brings low dowry to the husband’s family is more likely to be harassed, abused, forced to commit suicide and even burned alive in a brutal way. Until 1985, if a woman dies because of fire, it would be put down as mere suicide. Even if the husband’s family kills the girl or even if she committed suicide, there would be no mention dowry in the case. During the 1980s, many feminist demonstrations took place throughout the country that the suicides committed were not ordinary suicides but they were either forced to commit suicide or in fact murdered for reasons that falls around dowry. The Sudha Goel case[19] was the first ever case in the Supreme court which sent the husband and mother-in-law of the deceased for serving life imprisonment. Keeping this in mind, section 304B was inserted in the IPC to combat the rising menace dowry deaths or suicides. Section 304B of the IPC, 1860 reads that “where the death of a woman is caused by any burns or bodily injury or occurs otherwise than under normal circumstances within seven years of her marriage and it is shown that soon before her death she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry, such death shall be called “dowry death”, and such a husband or relative shall be deemed to have caused her death. Whoever becomes a constituting factor dowry death shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than seven years but which may extend to imprisonment for life.”[20] 

Section 113A IEA holds, “Presumption as to abatement of suicide by a married woman and Section 113B IEA holds, “Presumption as to ‘dowry death’ if that death is caused within seven years of marriage”.[21] Section 306 of IPC deals with abetment of suicide too[22] but as harassment, torture and violence happen to women in the closed wall of the house, the crime had to be proven by the circumstantial evidence available and it was very difficult to be done. It was due to this fact 113A and 113B was added to the Indian Evidence Act.

(3) Section 498A of IPC

The cruelty committed by the husband and his relatives on the wife was to such an extent that the parliament had commented upon a joint parliament committee to monitor the working of the Dowry Prohibition Act and the amendments.[23] To keep the husband and the relatives in check, and also to provide a weapon for the helpless woman against them, a proposal was made to amend the Indian Penal Code and the Indian Evidence Act to prevent dowry death that occurs because of cruelty by the husband and the in-laws. Section 498A was added to the IPC that deals with the husband or relative of the husband who is subjecting her to cruelty. It came into existence on 25 December,1983. This section says, “Husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her
to cruelty. Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.”[24] Before this law came into existence, there was a situation where the wife hardly goes to police station if she is meted out with cruelty from her marital home. If, somehow, she gathers some courage to go to the police station, she would be turned back without the compliant being registered making her live with the assaulter, which would lead to her committing suicide or getting murdered. The section didn’t talk about cases about cruelty that comes under section 498A that took place before commencement of the act. This was decided in a case[25] which held that the court cannot do it unless the legislature says so, and therefore cannot be given a retrospective application.

Section 498A was a very strong and lethal as it was non-bailable, cognizable and non-compoundable offence. On top of this, the burden of innocence laid on the accused. This section for all these matters was regarded as a very biased one. The constitutional validity of this section was challenged in the case Inder Raj Malik v. Sunitha Malik[26] contending that section 498 A of the IPC was article 14 of the Indian Constitution and also that it is against the principle of jeopardy as enshrined in article 20 as the demand of dowry or any property was also punishable under Dowry Prohibition Act but here it didn’t require the require for the element of cruelty. The court held that 498A is a more aggravated form of the offence. This section punishes the people who demand for dowry by using cruelty as a means to achieve the target.

Due to the same, the person can be prosecuted under both the sections. The court held section 498A to be constitutionally valid.

However, a large number of cases are filed under 498A among which, it is hard to say the ones that are real and the ones that are fraudulently filed by wives. The Justice Malimath committee on reforms of the criminal justice system, Government of India, ministry of home affairs, 2003 stated that this section must be amended at the earliest possible. The held that this offence should be made bailable and compoundable. In furtherance of this, the Supreme Court passed a judgement[27] in 2017 which lays down certain guidelines when matter of 498A arises.


The anti-dowry laws that prevail today in India today are not as effective as it is intended to be. The actual intention is to keep the practice of dowry at bay and suppress it with firm hands if it sprouts out. However, passing law is not the only way to uproot a deep-rooted practice that had been practised for ages and generations together. The legislation should be actively enforced and strong measures should be taken to implement them. Dowry acts as the social evil that paves way and encourages many other social evils which includes female foeticide, female infanticide, child marriages, dislike towards girl child as they are considered to be economic burden etc. Though there are valid legislations, the act of giving or receiving dowry happens in light without even the slightest fear that there are legislations that could get people into trouble. Due to the same, amendments need to be brought into existing acts and sections. More family courts have to set up so that women can address their actual issue so that misuse of section 498A is minimized. Merely passing legislation, amending them or forming new courts will not help. People should be made aware of what their rights are, what to do when the rights are infringed and what will happen to then when they infringe someone else’s right. Creating social awareness by various means such as advertising on media, counselling the couple and the families before marriage, holding demonstrations etc. Further, a monitoring body should be set up in the smallest possible proximity that can take into account dowry-related activities and aid them legally and psychologically if found necessary.


[1] Mysore Narasimhachar Srinivas, Some Reflection on Dowry (1983).

[2] Gokilavani, S. and Jelestin, S. (2008). Marriage, dowry practice and divorce. New Delhi: Regal Publications, pp.24-25.

[3]Padma Srinivasan and Gary R. Lee, The Dowry System in Northern India: Women’s Attitudes and Social Change, 66 Journal of Marriage and Family 1108,1108(2004).

[4] Cultural India. (2018). Essay On Dowry System in India – Causes, Effects &
amp; Solution. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Aug. 2018].

[5] Dr. Siva Arasmuthu Kallathu,Women’s Problem (1989).

[6] V.V. PRAKASA RAO and V. NANDINI RAO, THE DOWRY SYSTEM IN INDIAN MARRIAGES: ATTITUDES, EXPECTATIONS ANDPRACTICES, 10 International Journal of Sociology of the Family 99,101-110(1980).

[7] R. Revathi, Law relating to Domestic Violence 23(2004).

[8] Id. at 4.

[9] Merlyn Lobo Brito, Dowry, India Today, Nov 1983, 41-42.

[10] Aysan Sev’er, Discarded Daughters: The Patriarchal Grip, Dowry Deaths, Sex Ratio Imbalances & Foeticide in India, 7 WOMEN’S HEALTH AND URBAN LIFE (2008).

[11] Samuel Stroope, Disease and Dowry: Community Context, Gender, and Adult Health in India, 93 Social Forces 1599, 1603-1605 (2015).

[12] Sainabou Musa, Dowry-Murders in India: The Law & Its Role in the Continuance of the Wife Burning Phenomenon,5 Nw. Interdisc. L. Rev. 225 (2012)

[13] Id. 14.

[14] Wanda Teays, The Burning Bride: The Dowry Problem in India, 7 Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 29, 29(1991).

[15] Rahul Bedi, Indian Dowry Death on the Rise, THE TELEGRAPH, Feb. 27 2012,


[16] Puma Manchandia, Practical Steps Towards Eliminating Dowry and Bride-Burning in India, 13 TUL. J. INT’L & COMP. L 305, 307 (2005).

[17] The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, No. 28, Acts of the Parliament, 1964(India).

[18] Haseena V. A.; Ajims P. Mohammed, The Menace of Dowry Related Problems in Kerala – A Study of Paravoor Municipality in Ernakulum District, 35 J.L. Pol’y & Globalization 141 (2015).

[19] State Delhi (Administration) vs Laxman Kumar & Ors, (1986) AIR 250.

[20] The Indian Penal Code, 1860, No.45, Acts of the 45Parliament,1860 (India).

[21] The Indian Evidence act,1872, No. 1, Acts of the Parliament, 1872(India).

[22] Id. 20.

[23] R Revathi, Laws Relating to Domestic Violence (2003).

[24] Id. 20.

[25] Amrish Kumar Aggarwal v. State of U.P. 2000, Cri.L.J. 117.

[26] Inder Raj Malik v. Sunitha Malik 1986, Cri. L. J. 1510 (Del).

[27] Rajesh Sharma &Ors. V. State of U.P. & Anr 2017, Criminal Appeal No. 1265 of 2017 (Supreme Court of India).

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