In 1662, when King Charles I of England married
Portugal’s Catherine of Braganza, the chief reason was her dowry. It included jewels and a princely sum of money, but also Bombay and Tangier, as well as trading privileges in Brazil and the East Indies. Spain and France competed to find a match for Charles, but Catherine’s dowry was the biggest ever offered to the Crown. And so she married the “merry monarch” – and didn’t live happily thereafter.
Marriages made in heaven are a modern concept. Traditionally, unions were pragmatic arrangements – with some romance thrown in. While Catherine fell in love with the charismatic but philandering Charles, the arrangement involved political and economic considerations that were presented by the dowry.
Once women have economic opportunities, dowries become an inferior option of securing a daughter’s wealth Siwan Anderson Marriage payments cementing relations between kinship groups, families or nations have appeared in almost every society over time. While they have long died out in Western cultures, they are still pervasive in many developing countries with arranged marriages. “Typically a marriage cannot occur without these payments, which can be extremely large,” says Siwan Anderson, an associate professor of economics at the University of British Columbia and the author of “ The Economics of Dowry and Brideprice.”
Marriage payments fall into two categories: bride price and dowries. A bride price is payment made by the groom’s family for a bride. A dowry is money and valuables a bride takes into the marriage.
FORESKINS FOR KING SAUL
Bride price was common in ancient African, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Chinese, Aztec, Inca and Hebrew civilizations. According to the Bible, David presented King Saul with 100 foreskins from Philistines he had personally slain in lieu of a bride price for Saul’s daughter, Michal (1 Samuel 18:25). Today, bride price is found in south and southeastern Asia as well as in China, but it is most prevalent in Africa. When Nelson Mandela married Graça Machel in 1998, he paid her
family 60 cows for her hand in marriage.
In Europe, dowries disappeared with industrialization and the growing independence of women. However, among the aristocracy, a woman’s wealth determined her marriage prospects well into recent times. The 19th-century British novelist Jane Austen took a socially critical look at the pride and prejudice of this system. Her heroines did not have the annual income to catch their preferred beaus, but won them through charm alone. Some traditions lingered into the 20 th century. One was the dowry chest – also called a trousseau, hope chest or glory chest. This was filled with items collected for a daughter’s marriage such as hand-embroidered linen, clothing and crockery.
Marriage payments – who pays what to whom?
Dowry: payment transferred from the bride’s family to the bride, traditionally remaining her property
Groom price: dowry transferred directly to the groom’s family by the bride’s family – the bride has no ownership claims to it
Bride price: payment transferred from the groom’s family to the bride’s family
Dower: bride price transferred to the bride by her husband or his family for her support in the event that she should survive her husband
The economics of the marriage market determine the direction of marriage payments – to the bride or to the groom, says Anderson. Bride price is more frequent in tribal, agrarian societies, where women play a role in agriculture and men compete for the best brides. Dowries are typically found in stratified societies, where a man’s eligibility rises with his social status or wealth, and women compete for the best grooms. “The amount of dowry increases not only with the wealth of the bride’s father, but also with the groom’s future prospects,” says Anderson.
Parents take loans, sell land and fall into deep debt in order to save for their daughter’s dowry Varsha Ramkrishnan
This is causing dowry inflation in China and India today. In one recent example in
, a Chinese tile manufacturer gave his daughter a dowry of four boxes of gold jewelry, share certificates worth over $11 million, a bank account with over $2 million, the keys to several villas, a shop and a Porsche. The family is typical of the newly rich living in Jinjiang, a former fishing village in Fujian province, which began to develop in the 1980s and is now an export hub. In China, bride price is compulsory and dowries voluntary. However, dowries are common because families want to ensure their daughters will have economic equality in the marriage. the Telegraph
“It is counterintuitive that marriage payments are rising in countries that are developing rapidly,” says Anderson, which is why it caught her research interest. “Marriage payments affect the distribution of wealth and the wellbeing of women, making them highly relevant to economists.”
In theory, dowries should go down and bride prices should go up, when women are in shorter supply. Yet there is no strong empirical evidence for that. “One issue is that the marriageable age can always be adjusted downwards to accommodate excess demand for wives. So as long as the age gap between brides and grooms remains constant or even increases, the marriage market can equilibrate without an adjustment in prices,” says Anderson.
In many poor countries, parents willingly pay a high price to guarantee a husband who has a job and can maintain a decent livelihood for their daughter. “But this is getting in the way of women gaining independence through the education and employment opportunities that development brings,” says Anderson.
Marriage payments also hinder women from leaving marriages, since they have to be reimbursed if the marriage dissolves. Both dowries and bride price have been linked to growing violence against women. Atuki Turner, head of the Ugandan women’s organization,
MIFUMI, explains: “The man feels he is entitled to his wife’s obedience, reproductive capacity and labor. So anytime she resists his demands, he feels entitled to mistreat her and this forces many women to endure violence.”
African women’s groups are campaigning to end bride price – in Uganda, this has been successful. In 2015, the Ugandan Supreme Court ruled that bride price is unconstitutional on the grounds that they imply a woman “is on loan and can be returned and money recovered,”
the judges reasoned.
The man feels he is entitled to his wife’s obedience, reproductive capacity and labor. Anytime she resists his demands he feels entitled to mistreat her Atuki TurnerDowry violence is most dramatic in India, where over 8,000 dowry murders were reported in 2012 alone, according to India’s National Crime Records. Dowries were traditionally the property of brides in India. With the rising value of grooms – and, therefore, competition for them – this has transformed into groom price – a dowry transferred directly to the groom’s family.
One result has been extortionate demands. Families typically pay more than six times their annual wealth in groom price, according to Anderson. High-quality grooms can command well over $100,000. “Parents take loans, sell land and fall into deep debt in order to save for their daughter’s dowry,” writes Varsha Ramkrishnan, a physician at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the United States, in an article called “
A broken promise”.
Ramkrishnan began documenting dowry murders in 2012 while she was an intern in a hospital in Karnataka, India. There she found the burn wards filled with women. Victims told her that burning was ubiquitous as a method to extort money or valuables from a bride’s family. Killing wives to remarry and get a new dowry was also regarded as less of a taboo than divorce.
The dowry tradition impacts a woman’s health through all her life stages, Ramkrishnan writes. “Before birth, it comes in the form of sex-selective abortions. During the first few years of her life, it manifests itself in infanticide, malnutrition, illiteracy and abuse. As adolescents, girls are often overworked and not given opportunities because they are considered a financial burden. Once married, many women have to deal with the physical, emotional or financial violence that can lead to mental health issues.”
Anderson has called for marriage payments to be abolished and for governments to promote programs to empower women through education, targeted employment and micro-credit schemes. “Once women have economic opportunities, dowries become an inferior option of securing a daughter’s wealth. Only then can marriage payments be expected to disappear – as they did in Europe.”
However, it takes a long time to change culture, as Ramkrishnan writes about India: “Dowries are so entwined in modern culture, so steeped in history, that they seem ineradicable,” she says. “At the root of dowry violence is the perception of a woman and her worth in India. The ideology of women’s subservience permeates all social classes.”