Selling daughters: age of marriage, income shocks and the bride price tradition

Selling daughters: age of marriage, income shocks and the bride price tradition

By Lucia Corno, Alessandra Voena


Summary and Key Findings


Adolescent and child marriage is still a common practice in many countries, especially among girls. Worldwide, one third of women aged 20-24 years married before turning 18. This phenomenon is particularly widespread in the poorest regions: in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 40% of women aged 20-24 years are child brides. A direct consequence of early marriages is adolescent fertility. The relationship between female early marriage, early fertility and poor physical and socio-economic outcomes is now well established in the literature. Child marriages are associated with reduced educational attainment, lower use of preventive health care services, lower bargaining power within the household, physical abuse and domestic violence. Despite this evidence, little research has examined the important question of why such a practice is still so widespread in many countries. In this project, we explore whether income shocks increase the probability of child marriages in societies that engage in bride price payments -- transfers from the groom to the bride's parents at marriage - and that have limited access to credit markets.


We develop a simple model to show that parents who are exposed to adverse income shocks have a higher probability of marrying their daughters earlier. We test the prediction of our model by using a survey dataset from rural Tanzania and by exploiting variation in rainfall over a woman's life cycle as a proxy for income shocks: adverse shocks during teenage years increase the probability of early marriages and early fertility among women. Moreover, the relationship between rainfall shocks and child marriages is stronger in villages where the average historical bride price is higher.


We use these findings, together with the profile of age of marriage and the empirical distribution of consumption, to estimate the parameters of our model and to perform counterfactual simulations. We find that supporting daughters is costly for parents, and that timing a daughter's marriage and obtaining the bride price are valuable consumption-smoothing mechanisms. Without credit markets, policies to ban child marriage or discourage bride price payments are likely to receive strong pushback from daughters' parents. However, when households have access to credit markets, the consumption-smoothing role of bride price and child marriage become small, and banning these practices has limited consequences on the parents' wellbeing.