Dot: when social norms trump the law

A World Bank (WB) study, released last week, found that even though dowry has been illegal in India since 1961, dowry payments in rural Indian villages have not only persisted but also remained stable over the of the last decades. The analysis is based on data from the 2006 Rural Economic and Demographic Survey (REDS), the most recent source of dot data. Researchers calculate the net dowry as the difference between the value of the gifts given by the bride’s family to the groom or his family and the value of the gifts given by the groom’s family to the bride and his family.

The study, which looked at 40,000 marriages between 1960 and 2008, has four key findings. First, the average net dowry has remained stable over time with some inflation before 1975 and after 2000; second, the proportion of marriages with a negative net dowry, ie where the groom’s family paid more to the bride’s family, is low; third, dowry is prevalent in all major religious groups; Fourth, although the average dowry trend is stable at the national level, there are substantial differences between states, with Kerala having the highest average dowry.

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While India has transformed since 2008 and hopefully the magnitude of dowry has diminished, the persistence of the trend shows that social norms have prevailed over law, especially the Prohibition Act of the 1961 dowry. Experts say the dowry law was ineffective (and prone to misuse) for four main reasons: vague statutory language; weak enforcement of existing laws; cultural attitudes towards women; and economic discrimination against women. According to the 2019 NCRB report, 7,166 dowry-related deaths were reported in 2018. India has made progress in combating dowry, but every case of dowry and every case of dowry-related violence is one of too much. The battle for social reform against the dowry resumed in the 19th century; India of the 21st century must conclude it.

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