Is India failing its women? The increase of dowry deaths, and how it signifies a fundamental lack of respect for women’s rights in India

In one of the worlds most populated countries, violence against women is running rampant. The online newspaper Scroll stated that in 2015 there reports of violence against women occurred every two minutes in India, despite it being signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)[1]. Stated in the same article, dowry deaths are the sixth most reported form of violence against women in India, with domestic abuse being the most reported – over 66.000 cases were reported between 2005 and 2015.

The dowry is a deeply cultural and religious custom in India in which the bride’s family pay a sum, in money or goods, to the groom’s when they are wed. The dowry itself is a practice that removes value from the female, rooted in the idea that the groom’s family deserves compensation for taking on the burden of another female that will not contribute economically to the household. India’s cultural practice of patrilocality, expects the new wife to move into her husband and his family’s house after the wedding. In more modern times it has resulted in women being traded in market-like situations, much like cattle, and subject to severe harassment and abuse in their new homes[2].

But how does this result in the death, usually through the methods of burning alive or drowning, of more than 8000 young wives in India every year? And why is this brutal practice on the rise again even after the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act adopted to prevent just this?

dowry deaths

Nalini Singh, a sociologist, suggests that the woman’s place in society is defined by the perception that she is worth less than a man, and this worth-deficiency can be levelled by the dowry. When joining her husband’s household her parents-in-law, and even her husband, may expect more dowry than they received and if the wife’s family refuses to pay they will resort to blackmail and threats of violence. If the wife’s family is unable to pay the young woman is murdered. But the significant numbers of dowry deaths reported are a symptom of something more than just a lack of material additives to make up for the worth-deficiency of women.

“Even before she is born, Indian mythology has already defined a woman’s role in society. […] as economically and emotionally dependent on men as mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters.”[3] Furthermore, after a woman is married she is expected to show blind obedience towards her husband, and his family, and societal expectations means that she is on her own when she enters her new household[4]. In essence, she loses all her political status and is denied her basic human rights due to her inferiority according to customs. Self-effacement is seen as a virtue in a woman and silence and servitude is expected, but it is argued that young women do not feel like they should have to act this way. To regain some of her political status she may resist the societal expectations and her resistance is seen as a revolt that cannot be accepted by the husband or his family.

Lakhani wrote in her 2005 article that dowry deaths are on the rise, and can at this point be considered a slow, statistical gendercide[5]. In 2015 she stated that the situation for newly-wed women in India has worsened. The state and the wider society, including the international society, is closing its eyes and implicitly sanctioning dowry murders by not following up legislation and persecution of perpetrators. Most of the cases are recorded as accidental deaths or suicide, because no one wants to get involved due to the customs of India that says what happens in the home stays in the home. Even the wife’s family is unlikely to report the incident as it is seen as reflecting shamefully on them that they did not rise an obedient daughter. Of the cases that are reported, only 15% end in court.

This lack of persecution and following up on the existing legislation, as well as following international human rights law under conventions like CEDAW, shows a lack of interest in protecting women that can be seen in many other aspects of the Indian society as well. One need not look further than the recent increase in brutal rapes in the country. There is a deep seated belief that women are worth less than men permeating governance and the political space – allowing women’s rights to be violated without any repercussions. In essence, the case of dowry deaths is only one of many examples, but it is an example that gives clarity to the depressing truth that there is a fundamental problem in the way India approaches women’s right.


[1] Heyns, C. & Viljoen, F., 2001. The Impact of the United Nations Human Rights Treaties on the Domestic Level. Human Rights Quarterly, Volum 23, pp. 483-535.

[2] Das, A. K. & Mohanty, P. K., 2007. Human Rights in India. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons.

[3] Lakhani, A., 2005. Bride-Burning: The “Elephant in the Room” is Out of Control. Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal, 2 January, 5(2), pp. 249-298., p. 253

[4] Lakhani, A., 2005. Bride-Burning: The “Elephant in the Room” is Out of Control. Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal, 2 January, 5(2), pp. 249-298.

[5] Lakhani, A., 2005. Bride-Burning: The “Elephant in the Room” is Out of Control. Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal, 2 January, 5(2), pp. 249-298.



About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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