How much is that lady in the window? Female education and bride prices in Indonesia and Zambia

I just came across this interesting paper by Ashraf, Bau, Nunn & Voena on the upside of bride prices.

Now, I and I think a lot of people, have the intuition that the practice of bride prices is unmitigatedly bad. It feels exploitative, degrading, and just yucky.

Howver, the paper shows that increased school construction raises educational attainment for girls from ethnicities that pay significant bride prices and that increased female education significantly raises the paid bride price in those groups.

These surprising results are found both in Indonesia and Zambia leading the authors to conclude that,  “while there may be significant downsides to a bride price tradition, our results suggest that any change to this cultural custom should likely be considered alongside additional policies to promote female education.”

Their larger point is that, “our findings also highlight the importance of the cultural and social norms of a society, and how they can be critical in determining the success of large-scale development policies.”

Interestingly, this U of Chicago piece on one of the authors suggests that the idea for the paper came from unsolicited comments from Zambian parents saying that increased education of daughters raised their bride price.

One question that I had which the paper doesn’t seem to address (I say “seem” because it’s 52 pages and I read it in like 20 minutes) is what is driving the demand side of the market? Why do men pay substantially more for educated women in these societies? The premium can be very large, in Indonesia, the premium for a college degree is like 100%. Is this just assortive mating? Educated men want educated women and educated men are richer? I also wonder what is the social benefit of female education in cultures where it is used to sell off daughters for a higher price.

8 thoughts on “How much is that lady in the window? Female education and bride prices in Indonesia and Zambia

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  3. I’ve done primary research on early marriage in Uganda and Ethiopia with the Overseas Development Institute, UK. Glad someone is raising this point. It’s not only assortive mating – there are real (and perceived) livelihood or household economy gains from the perspective men and families when marrying more educated girls or women. There are status issues, but also the fact that educated girls often get local government or civil society jobs, as well as private sector jobs at the local level. This instrumentalism does not neccessarily equate to women or girls empowerment, but it could (depending on context) be seen as a step in the right direction

  4. How might this apply to the inverse situation — dowries? Does female education and future earning potential have an offsetting effect on the size of familial financial outlay? Since daughters are often seen in dowry cultures as an overall liability, can this be mitigated by education?

  5. I glanced at the paper and saw the footnote at the bottom of page 2 of “core reasons why montetizing transactions involving human beings is seen as repugnant.” I then substituted “professional athlete” or “movie actor” for “bride price”. Other than the person “paid for” not considered a victim, the situation seems parallel.

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