by Nicola Yeeles
Priyanka’s eyes shine as she tells me, “We were married for just 15 days. It was wonderful.” But Priyanka now believes that even on her wedding day, there was another wife waiting for her bigamous husband in his family home in Italy. “I waited and waited – for three years. He was always saying, ‘I will come for you,’ but he never did. He never came back. Then my mother became ill, so I gave up my home and I moved in with her.”
Since her mother died, Priyanka has had no permanent home of her own. When she is not studying theology she now lives with her sister, her brother-in-law and their young son in a small two-bedroom bungalow just outside Jaffna.
Like other women she knows, Priyanka feels robbed by her husband, who she believes married her purely for the dowry money, which he then used to support a different life with a different woman.
I met Priyanka while I was working in Sri Lanka, and hers was not the only story to this effect. During my four months there, I heard numerous tales of how the dowry system impoverishes families and leads to false marriages. But there were no stories more shocking than the recent headlines.
In August 2013, the Sri Lanka Mirror newspaper reported that a 30-year-old woman’s body was retrieved from a well in Sri Lanka the day after she returned from her honeymoon. Chamoika Udayakanthi’s brother claimed that she had been killed as a punishment for her small dowry.
The story is strongly reminiscent of the escalating violence in India, where a woman dies every hour in a dowry-related case according to a Guardian newspaper report.
My friend, Father Leslie Dareeju, lives in the deceased woman’s hometown of Pilimithilawa in the centre of the island, and works with underrepresented groups to help promote justice. He tells me, “This incident was very sad. But still this dowry issue is there in the society, something which is not openly done but is a hidden custom. It is very rare to see this issue.”
The hidden nature of the ceremonial gift-giving makes its scale difficult to quantify. Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist, but retains significant Muslim and Hindu communities mainly from South India, especially in the North and East of the country. The Sri Lankan government estimates that Tamils (Sri Lankan and Indian) account for 18 percent of the population, and it is among these communities that dowry payments are most common, a tradition inherited from India and other parts of the Hindi and Muslim worlds. Sri Lanka also experienced a long period of British colonial rule, which reinforced patriarchal attitudes.
Online, a Sinhalese woman named Ruwani claims that her parents gave her and her husband 20 million rupees (USD 151,220) in cash, but she says, “It’s well worth it because after all it’s for me and [my husband] Suresh for our future. Don’t expect everything free.”
Ruwani’s experience is unusual – perhaps because she is from a different ethnic group. Among Tamils, dowry-giving in Sri Lanka has changed from being a traditional present to the bride, to a payment from her family to the groom. For Sri Lankan Tamils cash, jewellery, a parcel of land, a house, furniture, a car, stocks, bonds and company shares can all serve as dowry. Orignally, this was supposed to be compensation for the bride for the inheritance she will not receive now that she has moved in with her husband. But these gifts are now directed at the husband and his family, not the bride.
In the same online forum, a woman known as Thushi adds, “If you think this practice prevails among the uneducated, you are wrong. It prevails among the educated that wait to prey on people to get big dowries. When the girl has not been given dowry by her parents, she is looked down upon, as an outcast of the family, in spite of her achievements and hard work.”
Nowadays it is often the bride who pays for it from her own earnings, as the average age of marriage has risen to 24 years for a woman and 28 for a man. Despite women being encouraged to share their preferences, many marriages are arranged and pre-marital relationships are almost unheard of.
Land in Colombo 7, sports cars, foreign holidays – these are not easy to come by for Sri Lanka’s aspirational middle classes, but why is it the woman’s family who has to pay? Responding to a debate in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation, reader Nivedha writes online, “I can’t understand why a man needs to count on what a woman has to offer to build up his life, rather than on his own resources. Apart from willing contributions, neither party should be ‘expected’ to do something.”
It is the expectation that has made the practice of dowry so dangerous in many other South Asian countries, and most have outlawed the giving of outrageous sums. A UN-led report published this month (September 2013) finds that in Bangladesh, men whose marriage involves a dowry payment are more likely to use violence, especially where the dowry is not paid in full.
Moreover, there is mounting concern about levels of domestic violence in Sri Lanka. The UN report excludes dowry-related violence from its nationwide interviews with Sri Lankans, in which 41 percent of men admitted being emotionally abusive against a partner in their life. Rosy Senanayake, a Sri Lankan member of parliament, has pointed out that only two percent of people charged with sexual abuse or harassment against women are actually given sentences in Sri Lanka.
For me, there are clear parallels between partner violence and dowry-giving. Both are hidden aspects of societal tradition, and both demean women by undermining their power and treating them as objects. When studying domestic violence, embarrassment and matters of honour may lead to a significant underestimation of the truth about how many women are affected. So it is with dowry-giving. How can we possibly be sure whether the figures are related?
There is no doubt that the Sri Lankan context is complicated by the variety of personal and religious laws that govern different people in the country. Writing on possible solutions, human rights lawyer Kaushani Pathirana says, “This is the time to adopt new laws and policies to eliminate the practice of giving and taking dowry. Sri Lanka should implement a better mechanism to prohibit dowry practices by … adopting the Indian Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 of India as a model with certain amendments.”
Making dowry payments illegal would be one step towards making life for women in Sri Lanka more secure and ensuring that people like my friend Priyanka have the future that they plan, not the one that happens to them.
*Priyanka's name has been changed to protect her identity.
About the author: Nicola Yeeles is based in the UK. As well as The WIP, Nicola's work has appeared in the international publications Baltic Times, Research Information and the International House Journal, as well as local and national newspapers in the UK. She was born in London but has lived and worked in five different countries across Europe and Asia. Nicola holds a first class degree in English from the University of Bristol and an MA from University College London.