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What is the purpose of a dowry?

A dowry is a transfer of wealth from a bride’s family to the groom and his family upon marriage. The practice of providing a dowry has been common in many cultures throughout history and continues in some parts of the world today. The specific purpose and meaning of a dowry varies between cultures, but some general reasons for the tradition include:

Establishing the bride’s financial security

A dowry is often intended to provide the bride with wealth that remains under her control, even after marrying into her husband’s family. This ensures she has financial resources of her own in case of emergency or widowhood. The dowry remains the legal right of the bride, not her in-laws or husband.

Country Average dowry value
India $2,000 – $50,000 USD or more
Pakistan $1,000 – $5,000 USD
Bangladesh $1,500 – $5,000 USD
Sri Lanka $5,000 – $100,000 USD
Thailand $10,000 – $100,000 USD

As shown in the table above, dowry values can vary significantly depending on the country and socioeconomic status of the families involved. Even within the same country, dowry sizes range widely.

Compensation for the groom’s family

In some cultures, a dowry serves as compensation to the groom’s family for the loss of the bride’s labor and fertility. After marriage, a woman traditionally moves into her husband’s household and contributes her productive and reproductive labor to his family. The dowry thus serves as payment to the groom’s parents for the “loss” of their daughter.

Symbol of social status

The size and extravagance of a dowry sometimes symbolizes the social status and prestige of both families involved in the marriage. Families often feel social pressure to provide a substantial dowry that reflects positively on their daughter’s value and their family’s wealth and standing.

Attracting a qualified husband

Some families provide large dowries to attract husbands from wealthier or more respected backgrounds for their daughters. The hope is that a more lavish dowry will entice a better match. This relates to the dowry’s role as a status symbol as well.

Cementing the marriage alliance

A dowry often formally seals the marriage alliance between two families. The exchange of substantial wealth demonstrates the commitment of both sides to the union. Large dowries also deter husbands from abandoning or mistreating their wives, since the dowry must be returned in those cases.

Providing inheritance to daughters

In cultures where daughters inherit less than sons, a dowry is sometimes seen as a way to pass wealth to daughters. The dowry may be considered her rightful inheritance, even if customs do not allow her to receive a portion of the family estate.

Potential downsides of dowries

While dowries can benefit brides in some ways, they also have some potential downsides to consider:

  • Creates financial burden for bride’s family – Large dowries can impoverish the bride’s family.
  • Leads to commercialization of marriage – Larger dowries seen as more attractive, reducing focus on personal compatibility.
  • Can promote mistreatment of brides – Husbands may abuse wives to extract more dowry from her family.
  • Reinforces patriarchal notions – Necessity of dowry suggests women are a burden requiring compensation.

Dowry trends around the world

While an ancient tradition, attitudes towards dowries are evolving in many parts of the modern world. Some trends include:

Country Dowry trends
India Illegal since 1961, but still widely practiced. Dowry violence remains a problem.
Pakistan Banned in 1967, but enforcement is limited. Dowries are decreasing in amount.
Bangladesh Practice has declined significantly, but not disappeared.
Sri Lanka On the decline, but still persists in rural areas and among the elite.
Thailand Dowries are customary but not obligatory. Amounts are moderate.

Worldwide, the dowry tradition is generally on the decline as views of marriage shift and women’s rights advance. But in areas where economic and gender inequalities persist, dowries remain an important cultural force.


In summary, the ancient tradition of providing a dowry upon marriage served various purposes throughout history, including providing the bride with financial security, compensating the groom’s family, demonstrating social status, attracting a better groom, cementing marriage alliances, and transferring wealth to daughters. While dowries could benefit brides in some ways, large dowries can also promote financial stress, marital discord, and the perception of women as burdens. Attitudes and laws regarding dowries are evolving worldwide, but the practice persists in some cultures. Understanding the complex role of dowry traditions provides insight into family dynamics, gender relations, and economic realities in many societies today.