Skip Navigation


A Broken PromiseArjun Suri

A Broken Promise

Dowry Violence in India

The paint on the wall behind her is peeling. She sits in a blue plastic chair in the village women’s cooperative. As she looks out the window, the afternoon sun’s rays illuminate the left side of her body. The skin on her face and upper body is mottled, paper thin and covered with hyper-pigmented scar tissue. “I don’t look like this because of an accident,” she says. Twenty years ago her husband told her she hadn’t paid an adequate dowry, threw a bucket of kerosene on her and set her  on fire.

Meera remembers burning until she fell unconscious.

Her husband then took her to the hospital. He gave her a choice—tell the truth and lose your children or lie so you can see them again. Meera lied.

Meera, 43, comes from a small village called Rajokri outside Delhi. It is a rural iron ore worker community of 12,800 people. She is a statistic who has not been counted—a sequestered victim of “dowry violence” or “bride burning.”

After the assault, Meera’s husband said: tell the truth and lose your children, Or lie and see them.

I witnessed the results of this violence firsthand seven years ago during my surgical rotation at a government hospital in Karnataka as a second-year medical student. The female burns ward was always full. The smell was unmistakable—a combination of betadine, silver sulfadiazine and burnt flesh. While dressing wounds, I heard stories of women immolated by their husbands or their in-laws because of an inadequate dowry or “groom price.”

The memory of that ward and the violence that these women suffered never left me. After earning my MPH last spring, I returned to India to unearth the stories of dowry violence victims. I traveled to the cities of Delhi and Mumbai and spoke to survivors, lawyers, NGO workers, doctors and patients to try to understand the problem and hopefully find seeds for its solution.

The practice of paying dowries in India is based on ancient tradition. It was originally a Hindu religious requirement in the Manusmriti, a text dating to 1500 BC that delineated the way of life and laws for Hindus. Among the ancient Hindus, presenting gifts to each other during a wedding was a required cultural practice. The daughter’s father was expected to expensively clothe and bejewel his daughter, and a son’s father was expected to give the bride’s family a cow and a bull.

Over time, when a woman left for her husband’s home, she was given money, jewelry and property (referred to as stree-dhan) to help ensure her financial independence after marriage. However the practice of dowry devolved from a means of financial emancipation for a bride to a modern system of transactions and groom prices, says Anjali Dave, an associate professor of Women’s Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai. “The woman has been disallowed control over the finances that she brought with her to the marriage,” Dave says. “Marriage is like a livelihood for [today’s] Indian woman.”

During negotiations between the groom’s and bride’s families, the “price” is agreed upon verbally and never as a written contract. (The practice of paying a dowry in India was outlawed in 1961.) Although the amount is paid to the groom’s family at the time of marriage, the demands often increase after the bride arrives at her husband’s home. If the demands are not met, the bride may suffer. “The violence ranges from brutal beatings, emotional torture, withholding money, throwing them out of the house, keeping them away from their children, keeping mistresses openly,” or in extreme cases, “burning the wife alive,” says Savra Subratikaan, a helpline worker at a women’s rights organization in New Delhi.

The National Crime Records Bureau of India reported 8,233 dowry deaths in 2012—in other words, one wife is killed every 60 minutes. However, since social and cultural taboos discourage women from reporting cases, the 8,233 cases represent only the tip of a predominantly submerged iceberg.


  • Dr. Adnan Hyder

    Baltimore, USA 10/17/2013 09:27:11 AM

    Excellent article - well written and insightful. My question relates to the NGOs covered in the paper: how effective are they in their work? Do they truly help those whom they purport to help? Do they provide 'benefit' to those victimized? Clearly both an empirical and socio-political question for all of us. Violence and injury prevention of all types is a global public health mandate. We at the Johns Hopkins International Injury Research Unit ( are trying to help as well.

  • Nitish Dogra, MD, MPH

    New Delhi, India 05/27/2014 01:41:43 PM

    Varsha Ramakrishnan has done a commendable job highlighting an important social issue in India with public health ramifications. However, she falls short of analysing the possible protective effect of economic status and mobility in a rapidly transforming society. It also needs to be highlighted that as per an epidemiological study in the State where Varsha studied, burn injury ratio between men versus women was 0.8:1 (Shankar et. al. 2010). Thus the problem of burns needs to be understood from different perspectives such as injury prevention as mentioned by Prof. Hyder, besides the more obvious gender lens. Interdisciplinary intervention studies are urgently needed.

  • Nishant Mehta

    Dubai, UAE 06/04/2014 04:32:53 AM

    Wow this is an excellent read, and one of those which makes you think long and hard about the issues at hand. We all know this exists, and has been for a very long time, but putting it into the perspective of women who have endured this, and who are still continuing to, makes me think differently and definitely hurts a lot more. Thank you for this article Varsha, and keep up the amazing work! You are definitely impacting more people than you think.

  • Rathica Palavar

    Dubai 06/11/2014 07:32:46 AM

    Hi, The article: A Broken Promise written by Varsha Ramakrishnan, MBBS, MPH ’13, was really amazing! To see someone who is young and developing in her career as a Doctor, who can still take time out to research the horror that these ladies face on a daily basis is extremely commendable. It shows that she chose to be a doctor out of passion for caring about the wellbeing of people, not just as a job or to fix what is broke.

    She did not take the task about spreading awareness about this issue lightly: she did extensive research into the issue and spoke to people from all aspects of this issue.

    The mindset of people about treating women as a commodity has got to change. What is so disappointing is knowing that women are ill-treating women. Mother-in-laws abusing their daughter-in-laws??? How could you not understand that if you are abusing another women, another person’s daughter, what’s stopping your daughter’s mother-in-law from abusing your daughter? It’s a vicious cycle that women need to open their eyes too. Stop seeing women in isolation! We are a collective!

    What women further fail to understand is that: if their sons cannot respect their wives and treat them with love, with respect or as a partner, can they respect and love their mothers? A woman is a woman despite her role.

    Men should also learn that a woman is not different if she is in the role of a wife. She should be more valued as the husband chose her as his partner. He made a promise to care for her and honour her; not just to her but to her family. He is not worthy of carrying the title of “man” let alone “husband” if he cannot stand by the basic promise that is the foundation of marriage: TRUST! Trust that he would value her as HE chose her! Trust that he would value her as she thought HE was worthy of that trust! Trust that he would care for her! Trust that he would honour her!

    If a man’s mother does not share the pride in upholding this TRUST, then shame on her that she did not inculcate the values of a true husband into her son despite wanting him to take on the role of husband. Shame on her that she did not value the honour of “womanhood” that she would torture another woman who she saw not as a woman but as a commodity – so easily dispensable. Did she stop to think or ask whether she was dispensable too, because she too was a woman – a wife? And shame on her that she did not raise her son to be strong and able to support himself – that he needed to stand on the shoulders of his bride’s father for support in life; and yet he still tramped on those shoulders by abusing the daughter.

    However, the biggest shame of all falls on the parents who think that their daughters could be sold. That someone could actually put an economic value on a woman who brings so much more to one’s life from the moment that she enters the world. A women is love itself! She is a soul nurturer just by being a daughter, a friend, a relative, a listening ear, a helping hand, a wife! She is a soul carrier when she is pregnant and a soul raiser as a mother. What price can you put on that?

    Gosh! What was supposed to be a feedback email on Varsha’s wonderful article has turned into another article! What can I say, she inspired and roused me

  • Durriya Meer

    Ann Arbor, MI 06/16/2014 01:37:18 PM

    Thank you Varsha, for the excellent article! My dissertation was on acid violence in Bangladesh and I found the same bleak picture that you have painted about dowry violence. As a psychologist, I work with violence against women and within that, my specialization is violence against South Asian women.

    We keep pointing to "society" as though it is external to us. We too are part of that society and unfortunately, perpetuate the same myths and misperceptions. Those of us who have privilege (education, class etc) also must take responsibility for what we can do, and I truly believe no effort is too small.

    I agree with Ms. Palavar...the greatest tragedy is that a woman is sometimes another woman's worst a single woman who chose not to get married, I have faced the worst discrimination from other women as though I am a pariah because of being nontraditional.

    Thank you again for the insightful article and I hope that we can rise beyond our differences to help and support each other.

* = required field

Read about our policy on comments to magazine articles.

design element
Online Extras

Beyond Bikini Science

Beyond Bikini Science

A band of scientists is expanding the scope of women's health.

Watch Now

Talk to Us

Amazed? Enthralled? Disappointed? We want to hear from you. Share your thoughts on articles and your ideas for new stories:

Download the PDF

Get a copy of all Feature articles in PDF format. Read stories offline, optimized for printing.

Download Now (3.2MB)