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Dowry Deaths

A particular form of fatal partner violence that occurs in South Asia has been termed “dowry deaths.” However, this is not a strictly accurate term. While many of the deaths may be precipitated by a desire for increased dowry, as with all domestic violence cases, the stated reason for the violence is often simply an excuse (Kishwar, 2005): Men may offer as an excuse for the violence that dinner was late or poorly cooked, but they are not called “lousy cooking murders.”

Under the law in India, any death of a wife within the first 7 years of marriage is classified as a “dowry death”; it is up to her husband to prove it was not murder (Hackett, 2011). Thus, when news reports state that over 8,000 cases of dowry death were reported in India in 2010 (Bedi, 2012), it is unknown how many of these were truly such cases.

In India, regions with lower rates of gender equality and human development had higher rates of dowry deaths (Hackett, 2011). The link between dowries and the lower status of women is not a direct link, as even groups that did not practice the tradition of dowry were found to have committed female infanticide, demonstrating the low status of women in the culture regardless of the dowry burden (Oldenburg, 2002). As further evidence of the weaker link between dowry and “dowry death” and the stronger link with women’s lower status, in Pakistan women are victims of deliberate burnings blamed on stoves; these deaths are not linked with dowries in that country but represent general violence within the family (Human Rights Watch, 2006). In Afghanistan, some women even set themselves on fire so that they can escape from the violence experienced at the hands of their husbands and in-laws (Rubin, 2010).

Conversely, in Uganda, it is the norm for the groom to give money or gifts to the bride’s family, named “bride price.” Research has found that women believe that this tradition contributes to domestic violence as the husbands feel they have “bought” their wives, and as their possessions, they may treat them as they like. Activists in Uganda want to change the name to “bride gift,” as they do not believe they can eradicate the tradition, but hope the name change will reflect the intent of the tradition and not that women may be bought as possessions (“Ban term,” 2013).

However, this should not obscure the fact that this does occur. The importance and amount of a bride’s dowry has been growing in South Asia in countries such as India and Bangladesh, even though the giving and receiving of a dowry is illegal. To give an “appropriate” amount, many families are now driven into debt. However, some grooms and their families are not satisfied with the dowry and ask for more. If they do not receive it, they may kill the bride so that the groom is free to marry again and get another dowry.

A dowry was originally intended as an inheritance for the woman so that she would have her own wealth separate from her husband’s. Women traditionally married out of their birth villages and moved away from the protection of their families. The dowry was developed to give her money and goods for her pleasure and possibly for times of need. It was intended to show the appreciation for, and the status of, the bride in her home village (Oldenburg, 2002). However, with the advent of the British colonialism and laws, inheritance for women waned. The British concept of inheritance was that land was passed down to first-born sons; thus, land was no longer passed down to women and they lost their traditional inheritances. This led to the concentration of land in the hands of a few wealthy landowners rather than many smaller farmers, increasing poverty. This increase in familial poverty led to difficulties in giving daughters a dowry and they began to be seen as liabilities (Kishwar, 2005). To combat this, a campaign in India has started urging couples to pledge to abstain from giving or receiving a dowry: (www.indiatogether. org/women/dowry/pledge).

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