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'Terrible Tradition': Pakistan's Crippling Dowries Put Huge Burden On Poor Brides

The cost of a dowry is often a burdensome expense for Pakistani families who are already struggling financially. (file photo)
The cost of a dowry is often a burdensome expense for Pakistani families who are already struggling financially. (file photo)

Gulalai had several suitors in her hometown in Pakistan, where arranged marriages are common.

But the marriage proposals fell through because the families of the potential grooms demanded a hefty dowry that her parents could not afford.

"People often come to ask for my hand in marriage, but they do not come back after they realize that my poor family cannot pay a huge dowry," says Gulalai, who is from the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Dowries are a centuries-old tradition in South Asia where the Pakistani bride's parents give cash, jewelry, or clothes to the groom's family as part of the marriage.

There are laws that limit dowries in the deeply religious, conservative country of some 220 million. But the rules are rarely enforced or followed.

Activists say disputes over dowries leave women susceptible to domestic violence and can even lead to death when the in-laws are unhappy with a dowry.

'List Of Items'

Gulalai is not alone in being beholden to an out-of-reach dowry in order to get married. The problem is common.

"Many families cannot marry their daughters due to dowries," she adds.

Gulalai says the groom's family often presents a list of items to the bride-to-be's family. It can include jewelry, furniture, electrical appliances, and sometimes even a new car.

The immense cost of the dowry is often a crippling expense for poor families already struggling to make ends meet.

The economic pressure of trying to reduce or avoid a dowry or needing to receive one compels families to accept a marriage proposal even for underage girls.

Mohammad Ali, the head of Khpal Kor (Own House), an NGO in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that helps poor families, says dowries are "an outdated and unnecessary ritual that has become a competition between families."

"The families of poor girls are the worst affected because they can't afford it," he says. "In the past, dowries were simple and involved kitchen items and clothing. But now the burden is too much."

Bridegrooms celebrate during a mass marriage ceremony in Karachi. (file photo)
Bridegrooms celebrate during a mass marriage ceremony in Karachi. (file photo)

While some girls stay unmarried, other families take out huge loans to satisfy dowry demands. The loans often saddle families with huge debts that they struggle to repay.

"My father and my brothers took loans from various friends and relatives to arrange my dowry," says Zahida, a woman in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. "They tried to get everything that my in-laws wanted."

But even that was not enough.

Zahida says she has suffered years of psychological abuse from her in-laws who believe the dowry her family gave was insufficient.

"It has been over 15 years since my marriage," says Zahida. "But my husband's family still taunts me about the dowry. It's a terrible tradition."

Dowry-Related Deaths

Dowries exist across all levels of Pakistani society as it is an issue of honor for the bridegroom and his family.

Brides who do not meet the dowry expectations of in-laws are often humiliated and physically abused. In some cases brides have been killed.

Human rights groups say disputes over dowries are often a trigger for abuse. In some cases, even after families paid dowries they faced pressure to pay more.

"Dowry demands are usually settled at the time of marriage. However, some men and their families continue to make dowry demands throughout the marriage," said Human Rights Watch, referring to the practice in the wider South Asian region.

"Women who are unable to satisfy those demands suffer threats of abandonment, beatings, cigarette burns, deprivation of food and medicine, acid attacks, and, in some cases, death," added the New York-based human rights watchdog.

Rights groups say the tradition of dowries in Pakistan is often abused by grooms' families.
Rights groups say the tradition of dowries in Pakistan is often abused by grooms' families.

According to Pakistan's News International, an English-language newspaper, the country has the highest reported number of dowry death rates per 100,000 women in the world, with an estimated 2,000 cases reported each year.

Most of the world's highest dowry-related violence and deaths are reported in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.

'Flouting The Laws'

The dowry custom in South Asia is many centuries old.

A gift in cash or jewelry was given to a bride by her family to maintain her independence after marriage because women were not entitled to an inheritance.

During the colonial era, it was the only legal way to get married in British India. Since then, the custom has continued and the value of dowries has ballooned.

Activists say the dowry tradition will be eliminated when women gain the right to receive an inheritance.

Pakistani governments have for decades passed various laws in an attempt to curb excessive dowries, which are actually prohibited under Islam.

The federal government last year proposed an amendment to the Dowry and Bridal Restriction Act of 1976 to further limit dowries.

The amendment proposed a cap on dowries to the equivalent of around 50 grams of gold, which could be used to purchase bedsheets and clothes for the bride.

"The proposed amendment is focusing on the imposition of fines and encouraging brides' parents to register complaints if they are pressured to give heavy dowries," said Dr. Seemi Bukhari, a lawmaker representing the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) party.

But campaigners doubt that laws alone will succeed in limiting and ultimately eradicating dowries. They say education and greater awareness will change society's attitudes.

In neighboring India and Bangladesh, which have stricter anti-dowry laws, the deeply entrenched tradition is still rampant despite the threat of fines and prison.

According to a poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan in February, despite being a burden on most people, the dowry tradition is still supported by more than half the population.

About 53 percent of Pakistanis support paying and receiving a dowry, while 38 percent oppose the tradition. Nine percent of responders were unsure.

"Here, rituals and customs are stronger than laws," says Ali, the head of the NGO in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. "People still flout the laws and the government is still uninterested in implementing the laws."

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    Daud Khattak

    Daud Khattak is a senior editor for RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.