This semester I have had the opportunity to take a gender psychology course, which will forever be one of my most memorable college courses. The instructor is very much a feminist by definition (i.e. she supports political, social, and economic equality between the genders). I too am a feminist and found it most supportive to have a role model professor. Because she took gender issues seriously and honestly she welcomed a variety of classroom topics and presentations. A male student and I decided to present on female sex-selective abortions in India and China. We focused on the political, cultural, and traditional influences on family’s fertility decisions. I centered my portion of the presentation on dowry practices in India and what this means for unborn Indian girls.
Sex-selective abortion is the targeted aborting of female fetuses; their gender is seen through ultrasound. Dowry is a traditional practice in which daughters, in order to be married, must present gifts from their family to the groom’s family. Gifts include property, money, livestock, valuable possessions, and so on. This practice most common among middle to lower caste families; however, it is widely practiced throughout all India. Because families, and mothers in particular, often cite dowry and its economic burden as the motivation to avoid having daughters, Indian government and the western world view dowry as an evil tradition. Indeed mothers report their main reason for daughter aversion is the dowry practice, yet these same mothers indicate they will require dowry from their future daughters-in-law’s families. Dowry is illegal in India, yet as demonstrated, such laws remain ineffective. To address this life-threatening issue, researchers in the social sciences have investigated dowry practices, implications and sex-selective abortions as they relates to dowry.
The two theories that stood out to me in my research were the social evil theory (commonly held by NGOs and the Indian government) and an alternative theory based on human behavior ecology. The later postulates that many Indians use dowry to ensure favorable situations for their marrying daughters, and that dowry is a way of ensuring security, safety, and respectable treatment of their daughters. It is true that husband’s families often use dowry as a form of blackmail against their wife’s family—if the gifts are not to the husband’s family’s liking they may beat the daughter, place her in servitude, and emotionally abuse her. To prevent this fate, families of daughters give her her inheritance early in the form of dowry, which, according to human behavior ecology theory protects her against abuse. The major problem with this theory is that supporting dowry because it protects daughters perpetuates the tradition of son preference and view of women as property. Fundamentally dowry disadvantages women, which is why most others and I favor the social evil theory as an explanation of dowry. Dowry practices support the abuse of women vicariously and dowry increases the economic burden associated with having daughters. It motivates sex-selective abortion and encourages female infanticide. These reasons, among others, indicate that dowry is a social evil against women.
It was heartbreaking to read about these women who felt justified and supported in their decision to abort their daughters because of the costs of dowry, and that they anticipated requiring dowry from their future daughter-in-laws. My heartbreak was echoed by my classmates who remarked that they had never heard of dowry, sex-selective abortion, or the widespread occurrence of abuse against women. It was important for them to know—for everyone to know, and I am glad I taught them about the social evil of dowry against women in India.