Redefining Tradition: Women Challenge the Dowry System

“In our community, we do not have money, people are not educated, we cannot speak elegantly, that’s why we need to come together, we need to work together. We joined hands, remain hopeful, keep our heart clean and trust each other to create a something better. This collective effort is the foundation of our future and the better future our children”. – Women leader Dandatole Center.

Throughout my tenure with READ, I’ve witnessed numerous heartwarming stories of community empowerment and resilience. Yet, nothing quite prepared me for the profound transformation unfolding in Dandatole, a vibrant yet challenged community we’ve had the privilege to serve. Even though they initially doubted their capabilities, the community has demonstrated an impressive potential for growth that lay dormant until sparked.

During my visit, the community was celebrating a wedding. The entire village reverberated with lively music, amplified by large speakers that they had rented from a distant town.

Amidst the jubilation, the groom-to-be stood, orchestrating the playlist with youthful enthusiasm. Offering my congratulations, I approached him and learned he was merely seventeen. Nearby, his older sister adorned their home’s door with fresh paint, a symbolic gesture welcoming the new bride. She, too, caught my attention—a striking young woman of eighteen, already a mother to a two-year-old child. I couldn’t help but notice that many of the women present had married at a similarly tender age, a poignant reminder of the realities of life in this community.

The dowry system, whereby families of young women are expected to pay the groom’s family to secure a favorable match, is a key driver of early marriage in Dandatole and across Nepal. There is a financial incentive for marrying a daughter early, as traditionally, young brides are preferred and require lower dowries. Additionally, tradition dictates that wives be less educated than their husbands, resulting in girls with more education requiring highly educated spouses, which require a higher dowry. This financial pressure on families has contributed to a rate of child marriage in the district of 42.1% according to Nepal’s 2021 census.

However, in Dandatole, deep-seated changes are starting to take root. This Women’s Day the women of Dandatole didn’t just celebrate; they redefined celebration, transforming a traditional game into a symbol of their fight against the dowry system, a financial burden painfully shouldered by brides’ families for generations. In fact, during one of my earlier visits to Dandatole, a mother confided in me that she couldn’t afford to send her daughter to school, as she was saving for her dowry instead. She feared her daughter would be mistreated by her in-laws without an adequate dowry, as is often the case in some parts of rural Nepal.

In an unprecedented event, to mark International Women’s Day in Dandatole, the women took the center stage at the READ Center to play Matka Phor, a game traditionally reserved for men, inspired by the god Krishna’s playful antics of breaking mud pots. The women played the game with their eyes covered to sy

mbolize the ability to perceive injustice even in darkness. This year, however, the game bore a different significance. The mud pots symbolized the oppressive dowry system, and with each pot shattered, the women collectively voiced their determination to break free from this longstanding social burden.  As these women lead the charge for change in their community, I am honored that their new READ Center is already providing a platform for them to achieve this transformational change.  I look forward to updating you on their future successes!

What Does it Take to Achieve This Type of Change?

When we began this journey in Dandatole, we did not embark with a specific intent to combat the dowry system. Our only pre-determined plan was to embrace a Human-Centered Design approach and use deep, empathetic listening to facilitate discussion with community members to shape a holistic program to help them break free from the cycle of bonded labor at nearby brick kilns.  As we’ve often seen with this approach, the community generated many innovative ideas and pressing needs that we would not have identified with a more top-down approach.  After this process to co-design the project, a series of interconnected activities were launched ranging from animal husbandry training and informal savings cooperatives to assisting in the procurement of vital documents like citizenship cards. Sparked from a request from the community, we also supported the establishment of a mobile learning center for children. This Center soon became a natural hub for all community members, especially as the existing Siraha READ Center was more than 10km away.  The community members began to understand the value of a trusted community space, and within the year they resolved to build a permanent READ Center in their village.

As the community shapes the new READ Center, it represents more than just a building; it’s a symbol of the community’s agency, aspirations and potential. The process is also building the community’s capacity to come together and tackle pressing problems. To ensure that the Center will be an enduring hub, the community has developed a business plan for the Center’s ongoing upkeep. This includes a range of rental services including speakers and utensils for events like the one I attended, carpets and blankets to ensure their guests’ comfort, and agricultural tools.

The resilience and unity of the people of Dandatole, especially its women, are truly inspiring. Their journey underscores the possibility of change when a community unites to rewrite its story. Yet, this change is challenging. It requires patience and partnership to dismantle entrenched power structures and shift attitudes and practices. This is the essence of the READ approach: listening deeply and empathetically to communities; having the patience to let the community lead the process at their own pace; and providing empowering holistic support that nurtures a community’s belief in its potential.

Thank you for being part of this journey with us.

READ Global

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