Causes and Risk Factors

Last updated February 2019

There are a number of factors that contribute to the occurrence of dowry-related violence, including the subordination of women, impunity for perpetrators, and a lack of awareness. Dowry-related violence occurs when a husband, ex-husband, or his family is dissatisfied with the dowry already provided by the bride’s family. This may occur if the bride’s parents do not meet the bridegroom’s family’s demands for dowry, if a portion of the dowry is withheld, or if the dowry is in some way viewed as insufficient.

The practice of dowry has cultural and historical origins. The original purpose of a dowry was to ensure that a new household may be financially stable. Dowry was provided to guarantee wives and children had financial support in the event of a husband’s early death. Another basic function of dowry was to provide an incentive for the husband to treat his wife in a nonviolent and kind manner. The modern practice of dowry has devolved and now manifests itself as a system based on emotional, physical, and financial abuse fueled by want and extortion.[1]

Certain factors increase a woman’s risk of being affected by dowry-related violence. Women who are young and dependent find themselves at an increased risk in the early years of a marriage. Alternatively, educated women may be less at risk of becoming dowry victims, often because education is closely related to socioeconomic status and independence. However, well-educated women are not completely immune from the risk of dowry-related violence, particularly if her husband and his family want access to her potential earnings.[2] Further, increasing consumerism in the countries in areas where dowry is prevalent aggravates the risk of violence.[3]

Subordination of Women

Dowry-related violence, like domestic violence, is primarily based on the subordinate role women have traditionally held in public and private life and the discrimination they face. The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women describes violence against women as “a manifestation of historically unequal power relationships between men and women.” Violence is used to perpetuate and enforce this subordinate role. Perpetrators of dowry-related violence exert power and control over the woman in order to extort money and to oppress her.[4] When governments allow or condone this act, it sends a message to the public that a woman’s value is not defined by her status as a human being but is determined and defined by her dowry.

Harmful stereotypes about the “proper” roles and responsibilities of men and women in the family reinforce the view that the family is a self-contained unit that deserves privacy at the expense of other rights and freedoms. For victims of dowry-related violence, this notion of family privacy interferes with effective police intervention and prosecutorial decisions in domestic violence cases. Police frequently view situations of dowry-related violence as a private matter and are reluctant to intervene in cases of violence, creating a culture of impunity.[5]

Impunity and Failure to Implement Laws

Impunity, or the failure to bring violent offenders to justice, condones and perpetuates the violence. Such impunity often stems from a general underreporting of the crimes, a lack of prosecution, and a general lack of awareness regarding the harms posed by dowry. Another contributing factor to the culture of impunity is the difficulty in discerning between a true and voluntary gift and a demanded dowry. If a woman’s parents provide her and her husband with a gift, free of any manipulation or demand for dowry, no crime has occurred. However, a dowry can be misrepresented as a gift, making it difficult for law enforcement to discern the true nature of the dowry.

Some nations have created laws to criminalize dowry violence and facilitate in prosecuting perpetrators violence. The Indian government amended its Penal and Criminal Procedure Codes and passed the Dowry Prohibition (amendment) Act of 1984. This act recognized dowry-related violence and also expanded the definition of dowry. The legislative intent was to deter future acts of violence; however, authorities explain the legislation has not been successful as a deterrent. In her report following her visit to India, Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Rashida Manjoo, noted concerns about a lack of effective implementation.[6] She found that “prevalence of dowry-related practices throughout the country was raised as a serious concern” despite the implementation of specific dowry legislation,[7] and that many women were not able to seek assistance or register complaints.[8] Discussing laws prohibiting dowry through South Asia, Manjoo acknowledged that “laws have failed to have an impact in curbing dowry or elevating the status of women within marriage.”[9]

In countries with laws criminalizing dowry-related violence, women are often hesitant to report threats and violence to law authorities or officials for fear of retaliation against their families or themselves. Families of the wife may not report a dowry-related death for fear of being implicated in the violence. Low reporting rates also result from concern for the perpetrators, shame or stigma associated with being a victim, and the perception that filing a complaint will be futile.[10] Underreporting of dowry-related violence is further complicated when the dowry-related deaths or injuries are misrepresented as kitchen accidents or suicides. If a report is made, police may fail to take an action, granting the violent offender protection within his family unit.[11]

In some countries, the existing law may discourage women from reporting incidents of violence, particularly where it penalizes both the recipient and the giver of dowry. In countries that have a legislative policy prohibiting the practice of dowry, such as India, seeking police involvement could result in the woman’s family, as the givers of the dowry, being criminally charged or incarcerated. Laws should focus on penalizing the recipients, rather than the givers, who may feel coerced into giving into dowry demands as a way of protecting the woman from further harm.

Lack of Awareness

Lack of awareness of the harms posed by dowry also augments the culture of impunity. By failing to recognize isolated incidents of violence as a trend, dowry-related violence is perceived as an isolated event, and not a violation on which the state must intervene with strong laws and effective implementation. A recent growth of awareness of this human rights violation has resulted in an increased number of educational campaigns and organizations aimed towards ending the violence throughout India. In communities where this response is lacking, however, there are often conflicting responses that undermine efforts to protect victims and hold perpetrators accountable. 

[1] Varsha Ramakrishnan, A Broken Promise: Dowry Violence in India, Johns Hopkins Public Health, Fall 2013, at 38, 40.

[2] Id. at 41.

[3] U.N. Division for the Adv. of Women, Good Practices in Legislation on ‘Harmful Practices’ Against Women 7 (2009).

[4] Amrit Dhillon, ‘Death by Dowry’ Claimed by Bereaved Family in India, Guardian (July 18, 2018),

[5] Mohammad Abu Taher et al, Combating Dowry Violence against Women in Bangladesh: A Critical Study, 8 Int’l J. Innovation & Applied Studies 1126, 1129 (2014).

[6] Rashida Manjoo (Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences), Mission to India, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/26/38/Add.1, ¶ 55 (Apr. 1, 2014).

[7] Id..

[8] Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences Finalises Country Mission to India, OHCHR (May 1, 2013),

[9] Rashida Manjoo (Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences), Thematic Report on Gender Related Killings, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/20/16 (May 23, 2012).

[10] Sadia Gondal, The Dowry System in India: Problem of  Dowry Deaths, 1 J. Indian Studies 37, 39 (2015).

[11] See Dhillon, ‘Death by Dowry’, supra note 4.