Is dowry a custom or a crime?

While talking about buying and selling of humans, we fail to count the system of dowry. And to whomever the suggested analogy seems erratic, we see you are not well-acquainted with the concept. In the dowry system, girls are married off along with an incentive to the groom’s family which is measured in cash, jewellery,estate, furniture and other luxurious machinery. It closely looks like taking on the burden of a wife being compensated with materialistic items to make the male’s life easier. 

How common is the dowry practice around us? Where are we lacking in completely uprooting it from our society? Have we in any way been an accomplice in this evil?  How strictly are the laws against the system being implemented and what creates impediments in the process? 

Origin and Evils of Dowry System

Although the dowry system has been in practice since the late Vedic period somewhere between 2500 to 1500 BC, it was originally meant to provide married women with their own property known as ‘stridhan’ since women had always been precluded from ownership of property. It was meant as a way for women to conduct their livelihood on their own in case of annulment of their marriage or death of their husband.

Another angle for the popularity of the system in Hindu societies is ‘The Law of Manu’ which ascribes ‘Kanyadan’ by a daughter’s parents along with dowry to one of the 10 ways to attain enlightenment. While dowry was in practice among the people of upper castes, lower caste communities had/have a practice of ’bride price’ which refers to the payment of a certain sum in exchange of the bride so that the bride’s labour-returns in her paternal home can be compensated.

Over centuries, the dowry system has taken an ugly turn vesting the intended ‘stridhan’ at the sole disposal of their male counterparts and his family. Dowry, also known as ‘daijo pratha’ in Nepali and ‘dahej’ in Hindi, has objectified women. It has made daughters the subject of torture and threat. It has resulted in disappearances of women, domestic violence, illegal prenatal sex determination, killing of foetuses, increased possibility of child marriage, suicidal attempts and even deaths. 

In the span of four years from 2017 to 2021, Nepal Police have reported 141 cases of dowry-related violence. Dowry deaths in India in this same span reached a figure of 35,493. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), India reported that 19 women each day were lost to dowry-related issues in 2020 and make up around 8000 deaths of women because of dowry every year. Only 914 girls for every 1000 boys in the age group 0-6 years is the Indian population scenario as per 2011’s census. This data is enough to prove female infanticide.The culture of dowry has put in operation several ways of culpable homicides and discrimination based on gender. It has posed a threat to women’s right to life, right to freedom, right to live with dignity, right against torture and degrading treatment.

Foreign Legal Provisions

As unusual as it may sound, dowry has been practised all over the world at one point or another, even in Africa and the now deemed progressive societies in Europe. European monarchies have long seen a girl’s family wealth as one of the best reasons to develop matrimonial alliances with her. South Asian Hindu and Muslim cultures are specifically notorious for the continuity of this practice. 

In most countries, dowry has been categorised as a criminal offence. Where the nations have not ratified abolition of the death penalty under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the perpetrators of dowry-induced deaths are given a death sentence. Below is enlisted a few attempts by countries of South Asia in combating the evil practice:

  • India:’Dowry Prohibition Act 1961’ was the very first of its kind supported by an amendment in the ‘Indian Penal Code 1860’ in 1983 and followed by provisions under the ‘Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005’. The Acts have criminalised giving, receiving and advertising dowry. Further amendment in the 1961 Act in the year 1986 has brought in a provision of trying the death of any women within the first seven years of marriage as being related to dowry. 
  • Pakistan: In 1976, the parliament introduced a law to minimise extravagance in marriage. The law was reviewed by the Law Commission in 1993 attempting to enforce a dowry legislation which added the provision that pronounced grooms demanding dowry as a crime.
  • Bangladesh: The first ‘Dowry Prohibition Act 1980’ was replaced by the parliament by the ‘Dowry Prohibition Act 2018’ which criminalises demanding dowry directly or indirectly and prescribes 1 to 5 years of imprisonment or a fine of BDT 50,000 or both. It also declares agreement related to exchange of dowry as void but allows exchange of presents which can still encourage dowry in the pretext of gifts.

Legal Provisions in Nepal

The Social Practices (Reform) Act 2033 (1976) was the first attempt in Nepali legislation to fight against dowry. Few important provisions of the Act are:

  • Both sides in marriage cannot enter into agreements to demand or give ‘daijo’.
  • If the bride’s side wishes as per their rituals to add up some farewell gifts, they are allowed to spare not more than ten thousand rupees.
  • The bridegroom may not deny acceptance of the bride or cancel the marriage on the condition that certain agreed upon payments have not been made.
  • Imprisonment of up to 15 days or a fine of Rs. 10,000 or both and forfeiture of the dowry property are the consequences for the criminals.
  • Display of property as dowry is banned and whoever is found doing so is liable to imprisonment not exceeding 7 days or a fine of Rs. 5,000 or both.

A new ‘Social Practices Reform Bill 2014’ has been tabled in the parliament that proposes penalisation of both giver and taker of dowry and rectification of the word ‘dowry’ with any kind of ‘possession’ so that chances of ambiguity may be removed. But on the downside, the bill also suggests legalising giving gifts up to Rs. 1,00,000 out of the bride’s family’s own will.

In 2066 (2009), another ‘Evil Social Customs and Practices Abolition Act’ was enacted to outlaw dowry. The Criminal Code of 2074 (2017) has also prohibited transaction of property during marriage. Such an act is to be criminalised with imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or a fine not exceeding Rs. 30,000 or both. Perpetrators of violence and degrading treatment post marriage for dowry shall be liable to an imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or a fine not exceeding Rs. 50,000. The punishment also follows forfeiture of the transacted property. However, these provisions are not in tune with the punishment prescribed by the Social Practices (Reform) Act 2033.

Nepal has seen 46 years since the criminalisation of the dowry system. And yet the practice seems to witness not much difference, just a change in terminologies, especially in various parts of Terai region. Sadder fact is, the family of the bride themselves do not acknowledge their giving of property to the groom’s side as a dowry unless the bridegroom or his ask for it out loud and with specifics. 

Cases and Verdicts

Among a plethora of dowry cases that go unreported, some have made it to the trial at courts.

  • Kamlesh Panjiyar v. State of Bihar: The appellant, who was the perpetrator himself was sentenced for 10 years in jail for causing injuries to his victim wife demanding more dowry after marriage which led to her death. The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Sessions Court.
  • Soni Devraj Bhai, Baber Bhai v. State of Gujarat: The cases conceded that the dowry system had been an obstacle in women’s liberation efforts and thus contributed to make way for the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961. It encouraged social sanctions at community level to be more deterrent towards dowry-related activities.
  • Sanjay Kumar Jain v. State of Delhi: The verdict acknowledged the dowry system as a grave menace to our society and hence, Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 was enacted to deal with the evil firm-handedly.
  • Nisha Sharma Lawsuit: It was a fraud suit filed by Nisha Sharma charging him of demanding dowry in order to rid herself of the wedlock. The case dragged on for 9 years from 2003 to 2012. It is one example of how anti-dowry laws can be taken advantage of.


The prevalence of the dowry system has cultivated a perceived impossibility in young girls’ minds of being tied in a matrimonial bond if you are not well-off enough. With so many movements against gender discrimination and consequent successes, there is no need to fortify a woman’s ability to hold herself up on the behest of dowry’s strength. The biggest reason of all is that marriage should not be a market. Relationships based on conditions are bound to invite hazardous tragedies. Parents should not feel insecure regarding their daughters’ safety in the homes they were married off to for their presumed lifetime.The burden of loans and fear in the minds of girls and their family need to end. 

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