Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Dowry-Related Violence: A Content Analysis of News in Selected Newspapers

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Dowry-Related Violence: A Content Analysis of News in Selected Newspapers

Article excerpt

In the past 15 years, women's issues, such as dowry death, rape, and sari(1) have begun to attract media attention, largely due to the growth of the contemporary women's movement in India (Joseph and Sharma, 1991). Married women are reported to be emotionally abused, physically tortured, murdered, or driven to commit suicide because of persistent demands for dowry. Captions such as "Why dowry spells death,"(2) "Dowry death: husband, mother-in-law jailed,"(3) "Mother-in-law charged with dowry murder,"(4) "In-laws held for dowry death,"(5) or "Life term for 3 in dowry death case,"(6) are becoming increasingly common, and a cause for concern among academicians, social workers, and politicians alike.

Estimates about dowry deaths provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs of the Parliament(7) can be of some help in assessing the severity of the problem in India. According to these sources, 4,215 dowry deaths were reported in 1989, whereas the estimate was 4,836 and 4,656 for the years 1990 and 1991 respectively. With regards to the incidence of dowry deaths, the recording of which began only in 1988, dowry was reported as the chief motive in 5.6% and 6.9% of the cases of murder and culpable homicide in the years 1988 and 1990 respectively (National Crime Records Bureau, 1991).

This paper will review studies of family violence and wife abuse, both in India and in the West. Further, the paper will identify theoretical perspectives to understand the factors associated with dowry violence and analyze the content of the dowry-related news stories.


In India, research on family violence took root during the 1980s, and to date, very few studies have been published on violence against women. Two major cross-cultural studies (Tellis-Nayak and Donoghue, 1982; Kumagai and Straus, 1983) dealt with an urban middle class sample, with a focus on marital violence and conjugal authority structures in different cultural settings including India. Two Indian studies (Mohammad, 1984; Sinha, 1989) found a correlation between lower socio-economic conditions and wife beating. Further, Sinha (1989) suggested that low self-esteem, gender inequality, and wife's economic dependency on her husband were associated with spouse abuse. However, studies focusing on questions such as incidence and the consequences of violence against women are not available in India.

One finds the emergence of two major theoretical perspectives in the West to explain family violence and wife abuse. According to the first perspective, the patriarchal social and cultural milieu that conditions the structural and ideological roles of men and women is the cause (Marsden, 1978:116-118; Dobash and Dobash, 1979; Yllo, 1983). A few Indian scholars also subscribe to this theoretical framework (Pathy, 1987; Nanda and Mangalagiri, 1985 ; Paul, 1985). The other perspective attributes violence in the home to social-structural stress exposure to violence during childhood, and to macro-level factors, such as cultural attitudes and norms about violence and gender relations (Goode, 1971; Roy, 1977; Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz, 1980; Gelles, 1987; Greenblat, 1983).

More specifically, theories of spouse abuse touch upon such causal factors as exposure to violence during childhood, low socio-economic status, social stress, social-isolation, low community embeddedness of the family, personality problems, and psychopathology (Gelles and Straus, 1979; Straus, 1989; Gelles, 1987; Herzberger, 1989; Prescott and Letko, 1977; Star, 1980; Voiland and Buell, 1980; Gelles, 1974).

The theoretical approaches relevant to the present discussion are: resource theory, exchange/social control theory, structural-stress theory, and Straus' behaviorist systems model. Resource theory (Goode, 1971) proposes that a person, usually the man, with more resources at his command, plays the dominant role in the family. Conversely, a husband with limited resources at his command resorts to violence to compensate for his loss of dominant position. …

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