After all the formalities, the potential bride’s father asks, “How much?” The father of the groom-to-be lets out a crooked smile and says “Two million rupees”. The bride’s father is tensed. He tries to negotiate. The bargaining goes on and finally a price is agreed between the two and the wedding is fixed.
This is how most of the people tie the knot in my community, the lowlands of Nepal. Although called as the “dowry” or the gift that the bride’s family offers to the groom’s during the marriage, this is usually not a willingly offered gift but a sum of money negotiated in advance. Many marriages are solely reliant on the amount of these dowries. And guess who are at the forefront for taking these dowries? Doctors!
A recently graduated ‘doctor’ groom can ask for somewhere between 1 million to 5 million Nepalese rupees, roughly equivalent to 8,000 Pounds to 40,000 pounds. This equals to five to twenty-five years of salary of a government employed doctor.
And this is not just about a few doctors. Most of the male doctors from my community ask for dowry. Marriages without pre-negotiated dowry are so rare in my community that when something like that happens, it is called “adarsha vivaha”, meaning “ideal marriage”, and becomes a hot topic for discussion in everyday gatherings.
Taking dowry is illegal and a punishable offence in Nepal. But that has hardly made the “doc” groom from shy away from this practice. Some of the grooms say that they asked for the dowry under family pressure. I believe that most doctors are ‘adult’ enough to make decisions for themselves. If not, I would doubt their ability to take decisions in a clinical setting as well.
The social and public health impact of this practice has largely been neglected. If there is one practice that I would like to put my finger on for impeding education of women in the lowlands of Nepal, it would be this one. Parents are reluctant to invest in the education of their daughters because they have to pay for their dowry.
There is a strong preference for the male child because of the associated economic gain. Recently, there have been a lot of disturbing reports about abortions based on gender preference. There have been instances when a bride has been harassed, beaten, or even burnt to death because her father did not pay the promised amount.
It baffles me how doctors can be at the forefront of such a practice which is not only illegal but also has negative social implications. During our training in medical school we are given a lot of sense about the ethical and moral aspects of our actions and upholding the dignity of the medical profession. Sometimes, these apply not only to a clinical setting but also to our everyday life outside of work. Can asking for dowry by a doctor be classified as an unethical conduct? My moral sense is tempted to say yes. But, I leave that discussion and decision for higher authorities on medical ethics for now.
Some of you reading this blog might be wondering how the bride-to-be can put up with all of this and go with somebody who asks for money to marry her. I am sure she must find it demeaning as well. But most marriages here are arranged by parents and women have very little say in it.
As for now, I would like to request my fellow male doctors from the lowlands, who are getting married and expecting a hefty sum in dowry, to think seriously about this issue and act in a dignified way.
Siddhartha Yadav is a former BMJ Clegg Scholar.