Match Made

The changing dowry practices in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province

Ritual offerings at a Tamil wedding ceremony in Sri Lanka. While dowry deaths are often reported in newspapers, the frequency of such cases is difficult to estimate, since they are not categorised separately by law-enforcement authorities. ruvin de silva
01 October, 2020

On 30 December 2019, a young woman from Sri Lanka’s Northern Province killed herself. While her motivations are impossible to guess, many Tamil websites noted she had recently married and a few speculated that excessive pressure for dowry may have played a role. The end of an anonymous poem which circulated on social media shortly after her death translates as, “If mothers who arrange marriages for sons/ Want to keep their children under their influence/ Why do they send them to wedding halls?/ It is the ruinous dowry system/ That has ruined this beautiful face.”

Women across Sri Lanka have always had strong cultural incentives to marry. In Tamil homes, it is not surprising to hear the proverb “aanillaatha pennukku vaazhvillai”—a woman without a husband has no life. But these days, Tamil women increasingly face pressure to marry at any cost, which usually means an expensive dowry.

Even as traditions shift and more women openly object to dowry, families continue to practice it. It is not only an important means of inheritance, according to Veena Talwar Oldenburg, the author of Dowry Murder, but also a sign of social status that allows the bride to contest power relations in her marital home. In The Institution of Dowry in India: Why It Continues to Prevail, Sonia Dalmia and Pareena G Lawrence describe dowry as an “economic transaction that functions to ‘equalize’ the value of marriage services exchanged by the households of the bride and the groom.” So if a groom is considered more “valuable”—if, for example, he is well educated and employed—he can fetch a higher dowry on the marriage market.

One reason men are overvalued in the Northern Province is because they are perceived as providing a security premium. With continued militarisation of the province in the post-conflict period, women face rampant sexual harassment, intimidation and violence. A husband is imagined to provide protection to single women, instead of the state doing so. According to the scholars Kate Cronin-Furman and Nimmi Gowrinathan, such protection often emerges in the form of a hasty or ill-advised marriage, and the pressure to get married may compel women to marry much older men.

Amita Arudpragasam is a senior assistant editor at Himal Southasian. She was formerly the head of policy and research at Sri Lanka’s Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms. She is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Princeton University.