The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Consider the following:

Patrilocal marriage and cultural norms prevalent in most parts of south Asia would seem to imply that her husband’s family stands to retain the major part of any additional gain an educated woman would generate. Hence, men would seem to have a strong incentive to prefer educated women as brides, especially since returns to women’s schooling are significant (whether directly, from the labour market, or indirectly, within the household, where the schooling of women may have important positive effects on the human capital of both present and future generations). Marriage markets in south Asia also exhibit widespread presence of dowry, i.e., payments from the bride’s family to that of the groom. Then, intuition suggests, ceteris paribus, parents of educated women should face lower dowry demands. Thus, competitive adjustments in dowry rates, by allowing parents to internalise the returns, should induce them to educate daughters. Yet, the persistence of low levels of female schooling and available micro evidence on dowry payments both suggest such incentives are neither strong, nor generalized.

So why hasn't the market adjusted?

This paper by a trio of researchers at the University of Nottingham studies the conundrum. Indraneel Dasgupta et al propose an economic model for the problem, propose a resolution, and examine the policy consequences. Here is an explanation for the puzzle:
[P]arents in south Asia, especially in the rural areas, typically desire their married sons to live with them in a subordinate capacity. They expect sons, along with their wives, to submit to parental authority in domestic decision-making. Co-residence within such a hierarchical setting can provide significant benefits, both emotional and material, to parents. Marriages are also typically ‘arranged’: these are contracts negotiated between parents. This suggests, when seeking wives for sons, parents may value characteristics that facilitate the continuation of parental control over sons (and thereby, co-residence) after marriage, i.e., characteristics that reduce the prospect of future intergenerational conflict and consequent household partition. Lack of education on part of the bride may constitute such a characteristic. Hence, parents may prefer uneducated brides unless educated brides bring in significantly more dowry. This in turn would reduce parental incentive to educate daughters.
Amazing how economic theory can shed light on societal ills. One way to look at social dynamics is as an emergent phenomenon stemming from fundamental human greed. What best proxies greed? Lucre. In the end, it all boils down to the green stuff. To perpetuate wealth among the male line, it is important for sons to remain with the parents. It turns out that if a man has completed primary schooling, the educational level of his wife is correlated with the propensity to depart from the parental abode, resulting in a fission of the joint family. It would, therefore, behoove a parent to choose an uneducated bride for her son. This parental choice in the bride results in underinvestment in the education of daughters.

What if the government were to implement cash endowments or affirmative action to improve the educational lot of women? Dasgupta et al suggest that these measures will be useless:
Governments often offer direct incentives to parents for sending daughters to school. These can be low fees, subsidised school meals, provision of books, uniforms, health care facilities and welfare benefits contingent on attendance, etc...Thus, relatively small ‘bribes’ will be ineffective. This happens because, if parents are to educate daughters [...], the state needs to compensate them for the higher dowry they will then have to pay. Hence, our analysis suggests that parental authority in marriage decisions regarding sons may make the level of female schooling ‘sticky’. State interventions, whether in the form of increasing direct parental returns from schooling of girls, or of subsidizing female education, may turn out to be ineffective in improving female schooling levels.
So what can be done?

There is some evidence that if men were to choose their own brides, levels of female education may begin to rise owing to the economic incentive of an additional income or from the improved human capital of their children. Providing a housing subsidy to newly-weds, allowing them to leave the joint family, can also remove the source of parental bias against educated brides, and thereby better educational attainment. Dasgupta's analysis further suggests that discouraging early marriages, and providing legal or administrative support to individuals who marry against parental opposition may be important in this context.

Other questions remain: do parents consider educated brides a threat to household stability? Does this perception of a threat result in discrimination against the brides?


Shefaly said...


From what I hear from young, educated and professional working women in India, the Indian male interprets such a woman's accomplishment and financial independence to mean a few things - that she will be willing to sleep with anyone; that she will be willing to marry any Tarun, Dinesh or Hari thus affording him a better lifestyle than his own piddly salary may buy him; and come child-production time, she will miraculously manage 10 hours of work and then all the childcare and housework. This scenario ignores, for reasons of analysis, the live-in in-laws for whom a son's long hours are 'oh poor him' and a daughter-in-law's long hours are 'kahan gulchharre uda rahi thi?'.

Any surprise then that many educated women do not marry? Once I knew only single men, now I know more single women than I can shake a stick at! And no, they do not want to marry older guys, divorced guys, guys incapable of seeing their own paunches and bald pates, and so on.

Comment over :-)

Fëanor said...

Shefaly: The trend in India is not that different from other countries heading towards female empowerment - the women will not tolerate nonsensical tradition and interference in their lives. More power to them.

now I know more single women than I can shake a stick at!

But I do hope you are not shaking that stick at them :-)

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