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Invest in women for equal marriage rights, research suggests

by Lindsay Jolivet
Nov 6 / 14

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Image above: Kahdija Khatun, a Bangladeshi girl who was refused by her husband after her father failed to pay a promised dowry, stands in Dilarpur village in 2005. Research suggests that marriage payments are associated with abuse against women. Photo by Rafiquar Rahman / Reuters

Investing in women’s education, skills and access to employment in the developing world is crucial for reducing the damage done by marriage payments, argues a new policy paper by CIFAR Associate Siwan Anderson (University of British Columbia).

Marriage payments include both dowry —a sum given to the husband or his family from the bride’s family; and bride price — a sum given to the bride’s side from the husband’s family. Both are associated with violence against women. In the case of dowry, husbands and in-laws sometimes burn or beat the bride if her family cannot pay the entire dowry. Women who have received a bride price are often scared to leave an abusive home.

In addition, dowries often force parents to choose between paying for a husband or investing in their daughter’s education and skills to allow her to succeed in the workforce.

In the countries of South Asia, dowries have swelled in recent decades. Some families pay more than six times their annual wealth, and an educated groom with good job prospects can demand a price of more than US$100,000.

Dowries are going up because men benefit the most from economic opportunities, says Anderson says. When industries such as manufacturing create new jobs, men are always the first candidates.

“Women have to compete for these high quality men and this causes an inflation in the payments,” says Anderson, an associate in the Institutions, Organizations & Growth program.

Several countries have passed laws to ban or limit marriage payments, but there is little enforcement in rural areas and entrenched social norms are difficult to budge. In India and elsewhere, marriage payments show little sign of going away.

Anderson argues that investing in female human capital is essential to resolving the problem. “You have to invest in female education,” she says.

Dowry is an investment in a woman’s financial security, because it buys a husband that will earn income to support the family, but education brings independence.

“She can be a contributing member of that household and then there’s no longer a need for a payment to compensate the groom,” Anderson says.

She recommends that governments implement subsidies for women to go to school and micro-credit programs to support entrepreneurs. She also cites the success of non-governmental organizations such as BRAC, which provides training to teenage girls and encourages them to wait until they are older to marry. Results from these programs so far show that it is not impossible to change norms and help women become income earners and leaders, but we must invest in their success.