Thursday, 22 January 2009

No to Dowry, Yes to a Fair Property Share

According to this news report, 1,500 young men and women in a Kerala village have taken a pledge to not ask for or give any dowry.
 
The giving of dowry is not a practice restricted to India . Royalty all over the world has given dowries. For example, in 1662 when Charles II, the English King married Infanta Catherine Braganza, a Portuguese princess, Bombay was given as dowry. In modern times, as women began to be treated on par with men and started to inherit property the custom of dowry slowly died down.
 
In India however, though dowry is now a reviled term, the practise of giving dowry is very much alive. It is very common for a bridegroom's family to demand a fat sum in cash, a scooter or a car, lots of jewellery, clothes for various members of the groom's family etc.  Many women remain unmarried because their parents can't cough up a dowry that prospective grooms demand.  Families go into deep debt in order to marry their daughters off.

However, there is another aspect to the Indian dowry system. A dowry given to a woman at the time of her marriage is usually the only property given to her by her parents at any time. In most cases, Indian women rarely inherit any part of their parents' wealth when the parents die. It is almost taken for granted that all immovable properties – land and houses – will be inherited by the sons. In certain cases, the mother's jewellery will be inherited by the daughters and their children. If parents die intestate, that is without leaving behind a will, inheritance is decided in accordance with the law. If the Hindu Succession Act 1956 or the Indian Succession Act 1925 were to apply, a daughter would inherit her fair share of the family property. However, in reality (I know this from anecdotal evidence), whether parents leave behind a will or die intestate, daughters get very little of their parents property. One of the reasons for this is that the family would have given away a fair amount of wealth in the form of dowry at the time of the daughter's wedding.

Now, the million dollar question is, as the practice of giving dowry slowly dies down (hopefully), will Indian parents learn to pass on some of their wealth to their daughters at the end of their lifetimes?  There is no doubt that inheritance is far more preferable to a dowry. A dowry received at the time of a woman's marriage will not be under the woman's control. Part of the dowry may consist of gifts for the groom (a scooter or car) and in-laws. Therefore, just as the authorities rightly discourage the practice of giving dowry, they should also encourage parents to treat their sons and daughters equally when dividing up their properties.

No comments: