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.