Dowry Deaths, Bride Burning

Anthropologists and sociologists have provided information on several forms of dowry-related violence against women in various countries, including some in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. However, it is only in India that some unique and historically significant examples of burning women alive have been reported. Studies indicate that there are countless ways of killing people; burning them alive has been rather uncommon and torturous. Examples of lethal violence against women in India through fire, therefore, are suggestive of peculiar socioreligious background. Although there seems to be little consensus on dates of origin as well as number of cases involved in fire-related deaths of Hindu women, recent studies have identified data and case histories of such female victims in India.

Background: The Sati Practice

The word sati, or suttee, as Westerners have often spelled it, describes an ancient ritual according to which a Hindu wife follows her husband to his death by ascending his cremation pyre with him or ascending one of her own shortly afterward; it also refers to a woman cremated in this way. The customary rite involved the cocremation of the living wife with the dead husband. The practice was traditionally based upon a belief in the karma principle (implying fatalism and predestination) of Hindu marriage, which as a sacrament demands that a widow kill herself so that her soul may join that of her deceased husband. It was also based upon the dharma principle, implying duty and sacrifice on the part of the wife. However, a husband usually accepts the death of his wife with indifference, as if his own soul did not have to join that of his late wife. This double standard reflects an aspect of the male domination and control exercised by Hindu husbands. The woman who became sati was generally hailed and accorded a heroic status by the community, as not every widow was provided the opportunity to become sati. A husband who had multiple wives might have stated in a will his choice of his favorite wife to be the sati. Although the sati practice was not usually based on dowry considerations, it has been suggested that women may have been burnt alive because of possible disputes over dowry.

Dowry-Related Burning

The practice of dowry in India involves giving of gifts by a bride’s family during the marriage to the son-in-law and his family, either in cash or in kind. Dowry is generally displayed socially, although it may sometimes be given in secrecy. The gift giving continues on different occasions through the first few years of marriage. The practice may have been present in Indian society for a long time, though now it seems to have developed into a form of commerce in many arranged marriages in India. Many married women have been reported to be emotionally abused, physically tortured, murdered, or driven to commit suicide because of persistent demands for dowry. About 5,000 deaths a year were reported by the government in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of these reports suggest that husbands (and their families) often blame the burnt victims for having committed suicide or been involved in accidental deaths (for example, while cooking). Women who survive the fire are too afraid to come forward to tell their full stories. This form of violence is likely to be far more serious than what government and the media actually report. However, systematic research on the topic hardly exists.


The sociodemographic and other risk factors for lethal violence against women in the traditional aspect of Indian society, particularly in the rural areas, are numerous. Women in those orthodox settings are generally uneducated, ignorant of their own rights, chronically dependent on their husbands’ families, and denied a right to build a social support network outside those families. That may make them vulnerable to violence and control. They also do not have access to protection from law enforcement agencies and are under pressure to keep their marriages going. Husbands, on the other hand, may have options for remarriages and fresh chances for dowries, making them and their families aggressive whenever deficiencies are noticed in wives and their dowry history. In addition, women who survive burning attempts might face a continued oppression with a difficult recovery and become further victimized even through their own families and communities.


In 1982, Indira Ghandi, the Prime Minister of India, spoke of her frustration at the situation of dowry deaths by saying, “We have got a lot of laws, but it is not so easy to implement them.” However, it seems that tough laws against incidents, or the so-called accidents, of women burning enacted under her leadership have started to have preventive implications. Demands for dowry as well as connected homicidal or suicidal attempts are now federal offenses, requiring the police to intervene. Law enforcement agencies throughout India have been setting up offices and shelters to help victims of bride burning. Women’s rights groups as well as popular media have been actively involved in educational and news programs trying to raise levels of awareness about injustices and violence experienced by female victims. However, studies show that demands for dowry have been on the rise, now more than in the past through under-the-table “gifts” arranged by marriage mediators. In addition, reported rates of dowry deaths have not been declining in India. Systematic research is needed to investigate all aspects of dowry-related issues and specific mitigating strategies for prevention of violence against women in the future.

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