Over the last two to three decades rural Bangladeshi society has experienced a complex range of developments. Among these, NGOs, micro-finance institutions and garment industries have become the major agents of change in the lives of rural Bangladeshi women. Women's increased access to independent sources of finance, through participation in outside paid employment or through micro-credit, is usually taken as one of the main indicators of the improvement of women's status and of women's empowerment.
However, a puzzle remains: if these positive changes have resulted in women's "empowerment", why has there not been the kind of improvements in women's position that might be expected, such as the reduction or abolition of dowry payments, or a reduction in domestic violence? Indeed, if anything these tend to be going in the opposite direction. Dowry amounts continue to rise, as does the associated violence against women.
It is true that individual women, women's organisations and other NGOs continue to struggle against these problems. Yet, despite all this effort, women continue to be subject to demands for large amounts of dowry as a condition for acceptance by their groom's family. Married women are also frequently subjected to physical and psychological violence by their husbands and in-laws if they cannot keep bringing in more and more dowry, especially within the first few years of their marriage.
To understand the seemingly intractable problem of dowry, we need to understand the rationale behind the practice. Dowry practices in Bangladesh (the demand or dabi from grooms' families) are a relatively new phenomenon. Their rise is linked to the capitalist transformation of the Bangladeshi economy since the late 1960s and the resultant disjunction between the demands of the economy and the system of values in Bangladeshi society.
This has led to a valorization of men and devalorization of women, legitimated both by a socially created surplus of marriageable women compared to men, and also by the threat posed to ideas of women's purity and honour by women's increasing physical mobility. All this in turn has made it possible for dowry to become a critical source of capital for families with sons, who are an increasingly prized commodity.
These new negative developments in relation to women and dowry can be understood better by appreciating that in Bangladeshi culture marriage and dependence upon your husband is thought essential for women. By 'dependence' I mean both perceived and real economic dependency as well as the moral or cultural dependency of all women on one or another adult man of their family. The necessity for all women to be married, along with the perceived 'risks' posed by an unmarried woman to her family's honour, means that families feel pressured to marry off their daughters as soon as possible after puberty. This lowers the marriage age for women, so creating a perceived surplus of women in relation to men, who are not under the same pressure to marry and so generally marry later in life. This again leads to further inflation of dowries and to the further devaluing of women - economically, culturally and morally - in relation to men.
Beyond the law
Dowry was declared illegal in Bangladesh in 1980. However, like many other laws in Bangladesh this has had little or no impact. When faced with demands for large dowries, families are reluctant to take legal action for fear of losing suitable grooms. Thus villagers will say that if one family takes legal action, no other potential grooms will come forward to ask to marry a girl from that village in future. While there are para-legal staff in some rural villages, poor people only seek their assistance when a woman has been divorced after repeated demands for more and more dowry,