WOW | WOW Issue

Dowry Exists , Demanded Openly Or Camouflaged As Gifts

Does the tradition of dowry exist in Nepal? To what extent? Ankita Jain of WOW talks to Sunil Kumar Shah, District Coordinator, Siraha, WOREC Nepal and finds out.

Tulasi married into a well-to-do family six years ago. But now, she is being needled by her in-laws for not bringing dowry. Her mother-in-law says that she felt ashamed that Tulasi came into the family without even bringing a “double bed”. Irrespective of the financial status, it has become the groom’s prerogative to demand and the bride’s family to give in. The menace of dowry cuts across all classes, and the rampant consumerism that has seeped into Nepali society isn’t helping matters. Whether demanded openly or camouflaged as gifts, the dowry system is alive and thriving in most parts of Nepal, particularly in the Terai region.

Even tribes which did not subscribe to this tradition are reported to having adopted the practice, but the most extreme form of the dowry system is reported in the Terai

“Dowry is known as ‘Daijo’ in Nepali. Daijo which is mainly common in Terai Madesh region is now spreading to other parts of the country in the forms of so-called gifts. In Nepal, approximately 50 to 60% of women are facing dowry problems. Since ancient times, the practice of providing cash and jewellery to the bride was there because females were denied inherited property. The Terai, where it is hugely prevalent, is surrounded by largely unregulated border with the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where dowry is majorly practiced. Accommodating 46% of Nepal’s population, it is the first area where dowry has become a part of most marriages. One now finds dowry marriages in the capital and to a lesser extent in the hill regions,” says Sunil Kumar Sah, District Coordinator, Siraha, WOREC Nepal.

Not just the wedding, dowry in one form or another continues to be given during pregnancy, childbirth, festivals, funerals and other occasions. It has become an abuse and source of ill-treatment enforced on women. “The cruel side of dowry comes to public eye only after an innocent woman has lost her life. Parents file police complaints only when the torture by in-laws becomes intolerable. Most incidents are hidden by the family due to fear of losing prestige in society,” shares Sanjita Timsina, Program Coordinator, WOREC, Nepal.

The giving and taking of dowry as a wedding ritual is said to have become a cultural practice around mid-19th century and became accepted widely in recent decades after the Marriage Act, Provision 6 of the Civil Code, which permits payment of a dowry if it is a custom in the community. “It has been argued that the dowry system developed initially among high caste, affluent families and that a substantial dowry is perceived as a symbol of high socio-economic status. Even tribes which did not subscribe to this tradition are reported to having adopted the practice, but the most extreme form of the dowry system is reported in the Terai,” Sah explains. He further adds, “We are running various awareness programmes to educate people about the adversities of the dowry system, child marriage and untouchability during menstruation. We are highlighting that dowry is a criminal offence”.

The highest incidences of dowry deaths are reported in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the belt that shares a border with Nepal’s southern plains. The culture, tradition and language are similar, and dowry practice is prevalent across borders. The international demarcation makes no difference in this patriarchal regime. Marriage has become a pompous affair, and dowry a part of the ceremony. The country’s laws do not sanction dowry and define it as a social crime. Instead of dowry, the Nepali law guarantees women equal share to parental property now. But what’s frustrating is that both provisions are not respected by citizens.

The old Hindu scriptures talk about gifts sent with a bride, but these gifts, called ‘stree dhan’ were not dowry as it is demanded today. The 2,500- year-old Arthashastra of Kautilya, in its summary of the contemporary law, specifically called these gifts ‘the property of a woman’. “Dowry in earlier days was voluntary in nature and was given to daughters as personal security. While in current times, dowry is an obligation and a curse on the woman’s dignity. In Nepal, dowry is now associated with social status and prestige,” Timsina elaborates.

There are several laws against dowry like Social Practices (Reform) Act, 2033 (1976); Domestic Violence (Offence and Punishment) Act, 2066 (2009) and Domestic Violence (Offence and Punishment) Rules, 2067 (2010); Muluki Ain (General Code), 2020; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) 1979.  “The laws are there with few gaps and challenges which needs to be addressed by the government. But is more important that women  are made aware of their legal rights,” Sah concludes.