One of the most consequential decisions a family in India faces is how it will pay for a daughter’s dowry. “In Indian soaps, whenever a girl in the family needs to be married, the first thing the father says is, ‘Oh my god, it’s going to be such an expensive affair, a dowry needs to be paid to get a better groom,’” says Darden Professor Gaurav Chiplunkar.
Technically, dowry — money paid to a groom by a bride’s family — has been illegal in India since 1962. There’s good reason for that, since the practice can lead to a variety of social ills, including a preference for male children, financial strain on families with daughters, and abuse by husband or in-laws if the dowry isn’t big enough. Yet in a country in which most marriages are arranged, the practice persists. “Instead of giving a suitcase full of money, families might buy an apartment or a car or expensive jewelry,” Chiplunkar says. “These kinds of gifts have been increasingly a predominant way in which dowries have been paid.”
How Dowries Evolve as Societies Develop
Despite such anecdotal reports of large dowries, however, there has been little empirical evidence of how or why dowry is paid — or what could be done to stop it. In a new working paper, “Marriage Markets and the Rise of Dowry in India,” Chiplunkar and co-author Jeffrey Weaver of the University of Southern California set out to fill that gap with the first systematic exploration of the phenomenon, which is a problem not only in India, but in many other Asian and African countries as well. “Most of the literature we found is completely theoretical,” Chiplunkar says. “We wanted to understand what we can say about how dowries evolve as societies develop over time.”
They found answers in a large-scale survey of rural households, which included data on some 74,000 marriages between 1930 and 2000. The first thing that struck them was just how much the practice has grown — rising from around 30 percent of families in the 1930s to nearly 100 percent by the end of the century. Along with that rise in prevalence also came an increase in amounts. “The median dowry in the 1960s was about two times annual household income, which is massive,” Chiplunkar says. “If you imagine taking what you earn in a year, doubling it, and giving it to another family, you understand what a big decision this is.”
Those payments reached a peak around 1975, before falling to around 1.2 times family earnings by 1990 — which is still quite substantial. That decline, however, was almost entirely driven by a falloff at the upper end of the scale, while median amounts at low and middle levels remained unchanged. The question was: What could explain these trends in dowry? Chiplunkar and Weaver tested several hypotheses to get to the bottom of these trends.
Theories: What Drives Dowries
Marriages in India occur almost entirely within finely delineated sub-castes, or jatis, with some 95 percent of brides and grooms marrying a member of their own jati — and this phenomenon includes educated, urban India. Some have speculated that a rise in the prevalence among “upper,” more privileged, castes has been emulated by those in traditionally “lower” castes. But Chiplunkar and Weaver found no evidence of that trend, instead finding a contemporaneous rise in the prevalence of dowry among all castes over time.
Another theory about the increase in dowry speculates that there has been a “marriage squeeze,” since grooms traditionally marry younger women. Therefore, as population increases, it could lead to a relative scarcity of older grooms, as compared to younger brides, which would drive up the price families were willing to pay for a groom, i.e., dowry. Again, the researchers found no evidence to support that theory. “We found absolutely no correlation in dowry and sex ratios at a marriageable age group,” Chiplunkar says. “However, we find instead that the age-gap between the bride and the groom tends to decrease to adjust for this ‘squeeze,’ since women are now more likely to wait longer to marry.”
Finally, the researchers looked at education as a proxy for groom “quality,” which some have speculated might lead to increasing dowry prices. “When households decide to choose a groom, they are looking at the prospects for future income and stability,” Chiplunkar says. Here they did find correlation, with higher dowries paid for grooms with more education.
Education and the Future
Chiplunkar and Weaver found that dowry price was correlated with the absolute level of a groom’s education, not the relative level within a certain caste — i.e., more educated grooms were able to command higher dowry payments. However, interestingly, they also found that as the total number of these highly educated grooms increased, dowry amounts for them decreased. Chiplunkar and Weaver hypothesize that this is because any one groom would now be less desirable due to the prevalence of equally well-educated peers. Thus, education (of grooms in this case) could potentially explain the patterns in dowry payments that were observed in India during this time.
“The paper is a first step in understanding what factors can drive the rise and fall of dowries over time,” says Chiplunkar, “as well as what could be done to mitigate the practice. With more education, dowries should go down, not just from a social standpoint of people thinking it’s just crazy to ask for money when you are getting married, but also from these economic forces,” he says. One factor that could change those trends even more, he says, is an increase in education of women, by making women more financially independent and putting less emphasis on paying more for a high-earning husband. “As there is a public interest in eliminating dowry due to harmful effects,” Chiplunkar says, “education may be an effective strategy to fight it.”
Gaurav Chiplunkar co-authored “Marriage Markets and the Rise of Dowry in India” with Jeffrey Weaver of the University of Southern California.