The practice of early marriage for women is prevalent in developing countries around the world today, and is believed to cause significant disruption in their accumulation of human capital, due to early school drop-out, withdrawal from labour markets, and the adverse effects on health from early childbearing.
This paper develops a theoretical model of the marriage market to explain how the practice may be sustained in the absence of any intrinsic preference for young brides. We start with the assumption that a desirable female attribute, relevant for the gains from marriage, is only noisily observed before a marriage is contracted. This is meant to represent the phenomenon that, in patriarchal societies, the 'honour' of a family is strongly linked to the 'purity' of its female members, and experiences or associations that a girl may have outside of the paternal home can create uncertainty regarding her 'purity'.
We show, theoretically, that the prevalence of the desirable attribute would decline with time spent on the marriage market and therefore, the age of a potential bride can signal her 'quality'. Therefore, young potential brides, aware that they will be perceived as being of poorer quality the longer they remain on the marriage market, have an incentive to accept an offer of marriage sooner rather than later. Older brides have worse reputation and weaker bargaining power than young brides and therefore their marriage involves a higher net transfer (e.g. a higher dowry) to the groom or the groom's family. This is consistent with available evidence for South Asia that delaying marriage carries a penalty on the marriage market in the form of higher dowry payments at the time of marriage.
In recent years, international organisations, and NGO's have invested in developing interventions that raise awareness about the negative consequences of child marriage, that provide parents incentives to postpone marriage for their children, and that provide adolescents new opportunities to acquire skills and alternatives to a traditional path of early marriage and early motherhood. Large-scale interventions of this kind provide adolescent girls with opportunities other than marriage. By improving their outside options, these interventions would impact upon the marriage market in two ways: (i) a girl (or her family) receiving a marriage offer can negotiate a more favourable marriage transfer (i.e. higher brideprice or lower dowry), which makes it less attractive for men to seek young brides in the first place; (ii) some adolescent girls may turn down marriage offers altogether to pursue these opportunities.
Both effects would attenuate the signal of `bad quality' associated with older women in the marriage market. Then, more men would seek older brides and potentially more young women would decline offers of marriage in subsequent years. Thus, expanding non-marriage related opportunities for adolescents can trigger a virtuous cycle of marriage postponement even if the original intervention is not sufficient, in itself, to persuade all women (and their families) to turn down offers of marriage. The fact that an intervention targeted at adolescent girls can make it more and more attractive for future cohorts to postpone marriage means that the long-term impact of such interventions on marriage and subsequent life choices may well exceed the impact on the first cohort which is exposed to it.
We illustrate this effect and provide a measure of its magnitude using the case of Bangladesh, which has one of the highest rates of female early marriage today. Our analysis shows that an initiative that increased the opportunity cost of early marriage for women in Bangladesh would trigger a continuous decline in its incidence. But the first cohort exposed to the initiative would experience only between one third and two-thirds of the total decline.
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