The dowry system in India is essentially a culturally sanctioned war on women. When a woman gets married in India, she and her family are customarily expected to pay a dowry price to get her married. They will pay a fee or a series of payments to the groom’s family in order to bring wealth into this new clan that she is now joining.
I have gone with Passion Life to India five or six times over the last six years. I love traveling in India. The work that we have going on there is headed up by a fantastic, purehearted brother, who is a pastor in Calcutta. He is doing an excellent job and I have had this discussion with him about dowry several times in the many trips that I have made.
Maybe the dowry had an innocent beginning. Maybe it really was an effort to bring the two families together to bond over this marriage. Maybe it really was an effort to start the new couple off on solid financial footing. But over time, greed and corruption have slipped into the dowry system of India and, essentially, created a platform for extortion.
It also contributes to a societal preference for little boys over little girls. Think about it. If you are a young married couple and you are about to give birth, knowing that getting your daughter married one day is going to cost you a large portion of your accumulated lifetime wealth, might that give you pause in thinking about what it would mean to give birth to a little girl in the first place? Might you prefer to give birth to a little boy than a little girl because of the dowry system?
India has a lot of reasons why they prefer boys over girls, especially in some regions, but the dowry is the main factor for this reasoning. Like I said before, dowry is a culturally sanctioned war on the female gender. It produces a lot of violent crimes, which I am going to describe and discuss later on.
It produces a lot of violent crimes against women, but it also leads to high abortion, infanticide, and gendercide rates of India. Those are the three things Passion Life primarily uses as the target we are fighting against. Now in India, it is gendercide that keeps us coming back time and time again. Yes, the abortion rate is very high, but it is the companion atrocity of gendercide that keeps our pro-life teaching busy. We feel like it is an area in which we need to be heavily investing in. The dowry might be one of the four biggest reasons for the high gendercide rates in India.
Technically, it has been illegal to exchange, offer, or demand dowry in India since 1961 when legislation was passed against it. They passed what is known as the Dowry Protection Act or the DPA. Essentially what it meant was that the government realized that in every level of society, the dowry system had become ingrained and that they needed to step in to to curb it. So they established the DPA in 1961.
A generation went by and no difference was made in the cultural commonality of exchanging dowries. They made modifications or amendments to the Dowry Protection Act, in 1986, to the extent that if there were any violent incidents in your marriage or if the woman, in particular, died inside the marriage for any obscure or unknown causes within the first seven years of marriage, it would be treated as a dowry related dispute. That is how prevalent the dowry system is in India.
I have been told that more than 80% of all marriages in India are arranged marriages, including Christian marriages. I want to go on record and say that I do not have any problem with arranged marriages. In India, they often look down on what they call “love marriages.” As though love is something that does not last. Well, if you look at the statistics, arranged marriages worldwide end up having a lower divorce rate than “love marriages.” But all that is a story for another day. More than 80% of marriages, including Christian marriages, in India, are arranged marriages and the dowry is a normal and expected part of that business transaction.
What happens is the two families will sit down, primarily the male relatives of the bride’s family and the groom’s family, and they will begin to haggle or negotiate a price for the dowry. Bargaining chips in the dowry price include: religious status cast, religious connections, education level of the woman, skin tone, socioeconomic considerations, political affiliations, etc. Those are the kinds of incentives, among other things, that are considered and weighed in the negotiation of an exact price for this bride. It is also a very secretive thing. It is something that takes place behind closed doors.
In an effort to make themselves look chivalrous, the government has made a public stand against the dowry through the DPA. But because of non-enforcement, it is still happening and amounts to nothing more than political posturing on the part of the government. The families continue to negotiate and exchange wealth under the table in secret where nobody knows.
In this circumstance, everybody wins but the women. No one hears about a successfully negotiated dowry if it is successfully negotiated. It is just something that stays in the background between the two families. The only time you are ever going to hear about it is if something goes wrong. If the price is exorbitant, or if an agreement is broken, or if a family comes back after the marriage demanding additional payment to what they had negotiated before because they realized they could have gotten a higher price. It is not uncommon to see these women beaten, burned, or, in many cases, killed due to family dowry disputes.
That is where the violence against women comes in as a direct result of dowry negotiation. You are not going to hear anything about a successfully negotiated dowry, but the only time anyone is going to press charges is in these extreme cases where something has gone terribly off the rails.
Despite all of this, the government says, “Well, not many cases are reported. There is not a lot of criminal activity reported around the collection of dowry so we are just going to use that as an excuse to say that our policies are working.” No, the policies are not working. All they have succeeded in doing is driving the activity underground. They have caused a lot of what is happening to women to be hidden from the public eye, making it even more dangerous for these people.
There is a foundation in India called The Invisible Girl Project. They say that one in five women, on average, are going to be the victim of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. On average, one baby is aborted every single minute, in India, simply because they found out that she was a female. One in four girls, in India, will not live past puberty. India’s ongoing dowry dilemma is a part of why all this is happening in that country.
There have been a slew of campaigns, laws, and regulations meant to curb it, or to, at least, make it look like the government is super concerned about this. One of them is Delhi’s recent Save the Girl Child Campaign. It is laudable that the government wants to step in and make it look like they are trying to do something about this issue. But the fact that they are not enforcing the rules they have laid down makes it look like more of an admission of guilt than an effective, pro-culture policy.
Here is an example: sex determinative ultrasound is illegal in India. It has been for a long time because when a family finds out that they are going to give birth to a girl, they will often abort that girl in favor of having a baby boy. What this has done is led to the fact that girls, inside the womb, are in extremely dangerous circumstances. You might say at that point that the most dangerous place for a girl is in the womb of an Indian woman. Because of the high abortion or gendercide rates, it has also led to an extreme discrepancy in the number of boys that have been born and the fact that there are millions more of them than girls. It is very difficult for these boys to find wives.
This is also true in places like China who have had the one child policy for so long. But think with me for a moment on the implications of being an Indian man for whom there is no wife. This leads to other horrendous cultural atrocities such as sex trafficking and slave wives (women who are being brought in from other countries to be wives for Indian men or who are being purchased on the black market through the sex trade industry). It is a horrendous domino effect if you think about it.
When God created humankind, he created both male and female in His image as we see in Genesis 1. Both the boy-child and the girl-child are to be regaled in splendor and to be treasured. Of all the things that God created, men, women, boys, and girls, all of whom are created in His image, were treasured above all other created things. Primary in the affections of God.
When a woman is purchased by a man or purchased by a family for a dowry price, it degrades her into a possession or something that can be bargained for. Her value is determined by things like skin tone. Ironically, the exact opposite happens when God purchases people at the expense of His Son’s blood. He purchases for Himself, children of God, who will become elevated to the status of heirs with Jesus Christ. That is what we learn in 1 Corinthians 6, and that is why we at Passion Life believe that healthy pro-life work is best served by laying a solid biblical foundation of ethics.
Pregnancy help clinics are wonderful. That is the action point where we want to see these things to happen, but it is not the best place to start. It is tempting to start by setting up pregnancy help centers. The best place to start, in our opinion, is with biblical ethics. Once pastors begin to understand how to teach their people the value of human life, the consequences of killing or doing nothing to stop killing, and explain the biblical call to rescue the innocent, then those biblical responses are going to be infused with a sense of urgency. It is going to trickle out into other “peripheral” pro-life issues like elder care, care for the addicted, care for the mentally unsound, care for the blind, deaf, or infirm, care for people who are victims of racism or people who are victims of discriminatory cultural systems like the dowry system.
When you start with the Bible, these are the things that are all enveloped into the idea of what it means to be pro-life. Ephesians says that we should have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but instead we should expose them. When we expose, by solid theology, the areas where our worldviews or India’s worldviews are incongruent with biblical ethics, then we can see with the eyes of Jesus where we need to make adjustments and change. As the dowry system of India is exposed to the cleansing power of the light of the gospel, India’s Christians will lead the way in eradicating these oppressive traditions, empowering women, reducing abortions, and turning the spotlight on the transformative power of the living God.