Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Dowry Dilemma

My Youth Empowerment group is making their digital story about dowry. So far they’ve been meeting with alumni and junior college students on Saturdays to discuss the dowry situation. I was particularly excited about this setup because I expected the Telugu medium would allow for more in-depth discussion of the topic. That may be the case, but there are certain limits to the views discussed because all students come from the same cultural background, which has fostered the dowry situation. I, however, have no such limitations! I am strongly opposed to dowry and I don’t face the opposition of my society, family, or future husband (I hope!) in this belief.

Yesterday, I led a discussion on dowry in which we talked a lot about what exactly the money is used for. We also pinpointed one of the main reasons people want dowry is because it is "free money". Ah, so, LAZY! I exclaimed much to the delight of the students. We then talked about how good it can feel to earn your own money and not rely on your parents.

Today’s class started with three solutions suggested by the students: 1) If the girl works, then no dowry; 2) Rs10,000 from the boy’s family and Rs20,000 from the girl’s family; and 3) 50/50 split money from the boy’s and girl’s families. Notice that “no dowry” was not a suggestion, highlighting what I see as one of the current roots of the problem (in the case of my students, at least): the perceived lack of money and resources available to them.

The students listed the following uses of dowry money, which are real needs: the marriage ceremony and reception are expensive, jobs are hard to find, one often has to pay bribes to apply to or obtain jobs, buying a house if living apart from the parents, medical treatment for health problems, and helping to pay for a sister’s or daughter’s dowry (hm, vicious cycle?). We discussed other ways to make money to cover these costs: jobs, part-time work, borrow from family, or take loans from the bank (not very glamorous).

Out of this information I framed the choice of dowry in a new way. There are many costs a couple will face after marriage; there are also many ways to cover these costs. One way is dowry, which is the free and easy way – the boys cheered and the one of the girls exclaimed “Lazy!” (Uh oh, I’ve started something…). The other way is working hard. BUT, if we say yes to the dowry system, there will be easy money now, but what about twenty years from now when the money for a daughter’s dowry must be raised? Then there will be much hard work. So, my question was: When would you rather work hard, now when you are young and strong (demonstrated by flexing my arms)? Or later, when you are old and tired (demonstrated by hobbling like an old man with a walking stick)?

I don’t expect the boys to convert to staunch no-dowry advocates in only the few weeks of this class. But I do hope that I can get them thinking about the less obvious long-term effects of dowry on themselves and the other people involved. Also, I realized after today’s class that I need to bring attention to the complicity of the girls in perpetuating the dowry system. After all, it takes two sides and the girls are often also benefiting from the “free money.”

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