‘They did not have to burn my sister alive’: Causes and Distribution by State of Dowry Murder in India
Peter Mayer is an Associate Professor of Politics and Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide, Australia. He has written on many aspects of Indian politics, international relations, economics, history, anthropology, and sociology—especially the sociology of suicide. His recent publications have examined issues including a zone of weak governance in the Indus-Ganges plains; India’s engagement with economic reforms; long-term trends in the real wages of agricultural labourers in the Kaveri Delta; the foreign relations of Australia and India; why elections in India appear to defy Duverger’s Law of party competition; and the declining rate of massacres of India’s Dalits.
Dowry, the money, goods, property, or gifts given by the bride’s family to the groom or his family at the time of marriage, is a common custom in South Asia. Although it is illegal to demand—or offer—a dowry in India, it is a nearly universal custom in many parts of the country. If, after marriage, a husband’s family feels that the wife’s dowry was insufficient, they may harass or inflict other forms of domestic violence on her to put pressure on her family to provide an additional dowry. At its most extreme, this violence may lead to the murder of the wife. An increase in dowry murders, commonly by immolation, in the 1980s and 1990s was reflected in important studies of the phenomenon and changes to the law to prevent the crime. Although the number of dowry murders has grown in succeeding decades, there have been few recent studies; rarer still is research from an all-India perspective. In this paper, I examine trends in and causes of murder for dowry and the related crimes of domestic violence. Prominent theories are tested for their ability to explain the incidence of murder for dowry. Dowry murders are concentrated in north India. Because the marriage alliance systems of the north differ from those of the south, the impact of Indian kinship systems is explored. The multi-generation or ‘joint’ family—nearly universal in India—has been found by Umar to be a common factor in many cases of dowry murder he studied. By contrast, Oldenburg has argued that changes in land tenure during British rule created individual property rights for men, leading to a preference for sons and the emergence of demands for dowry and, ultimately, dowry murder. Most case studies of dowry murder have been drawn from India’s larger cities; the impact of urbanisation is also studied. Economists have suggested structural factors, such as population growth, the economic value of women’s work, poverty, income inequality, and conspicuous consumption as possible causes driving domestic violence and murder for dowry. The institutional capacity of an Indian state to provide education, health, and enforcement of laws such as those prohibiting dowry is also examined. This study identifies five principal causes which explain nearly 80% of the variation in dowry murders at the level of individual Indian states: its prevailing kinship system, the prevalence of the joint family, the extent of women’s workforce participation, income inequality, and the institutional performance of a state.
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Mayer, Peter (2022) "‘They did not have to burn my sister alive’: Causes and Distribution by State of Dowry Murder in India," Dignity: A Journal of Analysis of Exploitation and Violence: Vol. 7: Iss. 1, Article 9. https://doi.org/10.23860/dignity.2022.07.01.09
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