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The surprising benefits of bride price for women

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The custom of bride price – a payment from the groom to the parents of the bride – is a controversial practice that some critics equate to the buying and selling of young women. But Natalie Bau has found a surprising benefit for the girls: higher rates of female education. Since an educated girl attracts a higher bride price, parents have a strong motivation to keep their daughters in school.

Educating children can be costly in some societies, says Bau, a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar in the Institutions, Organizations & Growth program, and an assistant professor of economics at the University of Toronto.

“But among ethnic groups that practice bride price, parents gain this extra monetary benefit, so they have an incentive to pay for school fees and uniforms and keep their daughters enrolled,” she says.

Bride price, also called bridewealth, is common in many different societies. It’s especially widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. The practice goes back 3,000 years, predating both Christianity and Islam.

The payment, which may include money, property, animals and commodities, can often equal a year or more of income. The practice is believed to have originated to compensate a bride’s parents for losing a productive daughter and the lineage of future children, as well as someone to look after them in their old age.

Bau’s research explores relationships between cultural norms, economic behaviour and development policies. With three colleagues, she studied the relationship between bride price and education in Zambia and Indonesia.

Using data from 455 marriages in Zambia, as well as census data, focus groups and interviews with local people who work as bride price negotiators, she found that completing primary school was associated with a 22 per cent increase in bride price; junior secondary, another 43 per cent; and secondary, an additional 27 per cent. In Indonesia, the numbers were more dramatic: completing primary school alone brought a 66 per cent higher bride price.

The researchers also looked at how the construction of thousands of new primary schools, intended to facilitate attendance by reducing travel time, affected enrolment. In both countries they found that female enrolment rose, but only for girls from ethnic groups that practiced bride price. For other girls, there was no increase.

In low-income countries, each year of education increases wages by seven to 11 per cent. Even if she doesn’t take a job, an educated bride may be valued for her greater knowledge and skills as a homemaker and mother. Educated women, aware of the importance of nutrition and immunization, have healthier children with higher literacy rates.

But the custom of bride price is controversial, as some people believe it confers sexual rights and other powers to men and may trap women in unhappy marriages. So does this new information cancel out the negatives?

Not at all, says Bau. “I’m not claiming that bride price is definitely a positive custom.”

But she adds that banning it altogether, as Uganda and Kenya are considering, could have unintended effects on girls’ education.

“We have to be careful to think about the cultural context when developing policies. In the big picture, culture matters.”

The research, “Bride Price and Female Education,” was co-authored with Nava Ashraf, Nathan Nunn, and Alessandra Voena.

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