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Marital transfers and the welfare of women

Throughout history and across cultures, marriage has often been accompanied by substantial exchange of wealth. However, the practice has mostly died out in western societies, which is perhaps why the meanings of these marital transfers are often not well understood. In anthropological terms, a dowry can be seen as a form of pre-mortem bequest to the bride from her parents, while bride-price or groom-price is a transaction between the kin of the groom and the kin of the bride. The former is an intergenerational transfer within the bride’s family, even though the groom and his family can also benefit when it is used to help set up the conjugal household, while the latter is a transfer between affinal families.

These conceptually distinct transfers are supposed to serve different functions. Recent economic research suggests that the bride-price or groom-price is a means of distributing gains generated by the marriage in accordance with overall social/cultural/economic conditions as well as personal attributes of the bride and the groom. Dowry, on the other hand, can be interpreted as a gift from altruistic parents to the bride to help establish her position in the new household. This is important since virilocality, whereby the bride leaves her natal family to join her husband’s household, is the norm in most traditional cultures. Empirical studies, using data from medieval Tuscany to modern-day China and Taiwan, appear to support these interpretations, particularly with regard to the beneficial effect of dowry on the welfare of women.

The picture is, however, quite different in South Asia, where dowry has taken on extravagant proportions in recent years and is often considered a social evil, morally offensive, and legally banned. Stories abound of Indian women abused or even murdered by their husbands or in-laws when the latter’s demands for dowries are not met. There is no shortage of commentaries on this issue, but relatively few rigorous empirical studies in this region. Nevertheless, the South Asian experience does raise a valid question: is dowry really good for the bride?

Indian Wedding Celebration, by Cleiph. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
Indian Wedding Celebration, by Cleiph. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

The answer to this question depends partly on what is meant by dowry, and in India today, it is synonymous with groom-price rather than a bequest to the bride. However, there is some evidence that, even in India, a “dowry” can include both components. Since these transfers are supposed to serve different purposes, we must first decompose “dowry” into these components before we can ascertain their effects on the welfare of women. This is what I did in a recent study using an Indian data set. By taking into account the control that various individuals (the wife, the husband, or other family members) exercise over the use of different types of marital transfers (land, cash, jewelry, etc.) as reported by the wife, I estimate the amounts of the bequest and the groom-price in a dowry, and find that a larger bequest does allow Indian women a greater say in a broad range of household decisions, from whom to invite to dinner, to children-rearing decisions, to making small independent purchases.

There can be alternative interpretations of this result. It is possible that a resourceful wife can secure a larger bequest from her parents as well as more decision power in her conjugal family, causing a spurious causal relationship between the two. However, even after I have controlled for this “endogeneity problem” using econometric methods, the positive effects of the bequest component of a dowry remain. Yet another possibility is that, in a patriarchal society such as India, any marital transfer will inevitably be appropriated by the husband and his family, regardless of the original intent of the bride’s parents. But since the Indian researchers who collected the data are confident that the women’s responses on the amount and control over marital transfers in my sample are reliable, we would have to take the data at face value, at least until better data become available.

This finding leads to the sensitive question of whether dowry should be banned in the first place: if a dowry enhances the status of the wife, wouldn’t banning it deprive parents a channel through which they can help their daughter? One can perhaps reject dowry simply because it is demeaning to women if marriage has to be consecrated by marital payments, although this objection lies more with the groom-price component of a “dowry” rather than the bequest component. Even if the ban were to apply only to groom-price, it would be a case of trying to fix the symptom without getting to the root of the problem. If parents voluntarily enter into a marriage agreement for their daughter even though it involves an exorbitant amount of groom-price, it must be because they believe the high price would secure a “good” marriage for their daughter. They would stop paying high groom-prices if they could be convinced that higher caste status is not worth the extra cash, or that a young man with a civil service career does not necessarily promise a better life for their daughter.

Alternatively, the government can ban dowry and impose heavy penalties on offenders. Neither seemed to have worked in India so far, as dowry remains prevalent, almost fifty years after the first dowry prohibition act was passed. What has changed is that marital transfers cannot be contracted upon because they are illegal. Enforcement of prior agreement depends on the good faith and concern for the reputation of the parties involved. When this mechanism fails, there is no legal recourse for the aggrieved party. The bride and her family are particularly vulnerable because she can literally be held hostage in ex post bargaining. If dowry is decriminalized and marital transfers can be negotiated, contracted, and accorded legal status, then not only can women enjoy the benefits of their dowry and better protection for their property rights, but opportunistic behavior by the grooms and their families to extract further concessions can also be discouraged. What looks like a step backward in history may bring positive dividends for women in the region.

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