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On the heterogeneity of dowry motives


Dowries have been modeled as pre-mortem bequests to daughters or as groom-prices paid to in-laws. These two classes of models yield mutually exclusive predictions, but empirical tests of these predictions have been mixed. We draw from historical evidence that suggests a bifurcated marriage market, in which some households use dowries as a bequest and others use dowries as a price. The competing theories of dowry allow us to structure an exogenous switching regression that places households in the price or bequest regime. The empirical strategy allows for multiple checks on the validity of regime assignment. Using retrospective marriage data from rural Bangladesh, we find evidence of heterogeneity in dowry motives; that bequest dowries have declined in prevalence and amount over time; and that bequest households are better off compared to price households on a variety of welfare measures.

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  1. We are aware of only one exception: Ambrus et al. (2010) survey households in a different part of Bangladesh about ownership rights over dowry, allowing them to disaggregate bequest vs. groom-price.

  2. Recent examples of this approach include Kopczuk and Lupton (2007), which investigates heterogeneity in bequest motives of the elderly; Vakis et al. (2004), which looks at heterogeneity in the separability of household consumption from production; and Guo (2014), which studies heterogeneity in bequest receipt as a signal of parents’ credit constraints when estimating intergenerational consumption persistence.

  3. If a bride has no brothers (or if her brothers are below the age of majority at the time of her marriage), the incentive problem that forces an inefficient pre-mortem bequest is vitiated. Any bequest will be given upon her parents’ death or at the time when any brother reaches the age of majority and assumes responsibility for managing the parents’ estate.

  4. The reasoning, although not always explicitly stated, is that dowry improves the bride’s welfare by increasing the overall amount of resources available to her (new) family, as well as by improving her threat point or bargaining position within the marriage. Zhang and Chan (1999) uses whether a husband helped with the chores as a measure of wife’s welfare; Brown (2008) expands the indices of welfare to include household consumption of women’s goods; Esteve-Volart (2004) tests Becker’s (1981, pg. 28) observation that one function of dowry is to protect women from divorce; and Suran et al. (2004) looks at levels of reported domestic violence.

  5. Considerable evidence from other dowry-giving societies around the world similarly points to the coexistence of bequest and price dowries, and the transformation from bequest dowries to price dowries over time (Kaplan 1985; Nazzari 1991).

  6. Such discussions abound in South Asian literature. For instance, early in Kamala Markandaya’s 1954 Nectar in a Sieve, a South Indian mother assesses potential grooms for her daughter: “At last, we found one who seemed to fulfill our requirements: he was young and well favored, the only son of his father from whom he would one day inherit a good portion of land.

    “They will expect a large dowry,” I said regretfully. “One hundred rupees will not win such a husband, we have no more.”

    “She is endowed with beauty,” Old Granny said. “It will make up for a small dowry—in this case.” (New York, John Day, pp. 39–40).

  7. The Survey on the Status of Women and Fertility in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu (Smith et al. 2000) asked randomly-sampled brides about the control they exercise over different forms of dowry. In marriages where cash dowry was given as dowry, fewer than 10 % of respondents reported that they had the “major say” in how the cash was spent, and more than 70 % reported that they had no say at all. In marriages where jewelry, gold, or silver was given, more than 47 % of respondents reported that they had the major say in how it was used or whether it could be sold, while fewer than 25 % reported that they had no say at all.

  8. There is some evidence of a rise in post-marital extortion of dowry beginning around the late 1990s—after our 1996 survey (Suran et al. 2004), a practice which may have spread from India (Bloch and Rao 2002).

  9. Anderson (2004) separates the sample of Pakistani households into rural and urban; Esteve-Volart (2004), using the same dataset as the one used in our paper, separates the sample into Hindu and Muslim. Both papers estimate separate dowry functions by subsample, and conclude on the basis of parameter estimates that dowry indeed functions differently in the groups.

  10. More precisely, throughout, we assume that such marriages in which positive dowry is given more likely to be in the other regime.

  11. Further discussion of the data construction is in the Data Appendix.

  12. For this reason, we use the eligible sex ratio to test Rao’s (1993) “marriage squeeze” hypothesis. See the Appendix for details of the construction of the series.

  13. This is the empirical strategy implicitly adopted by Rao (1993), Edlund (2001), and Brown (2008). In Rao’s case, α is set to 0, while Edlund and Brown both set α to 1.

  14. The log-likelihood from the pooled regression is −1690, while the log-likelihood from the switching regression is −1560. Twice the difference between log-likelihood for the pooled and mixture models is 260. As discussed in the previous section, a comparison of log-likelihoods is feasible because the pooled specification is nested in the likelihood function for the mixture. However, when the switching model is constrained to yield the pooled model—that is, when the regime parameters are restricted to be equal—several parameters are unidentified. Monte Carlo results indicate that a conservative likelihood ratio test can be constructed by using the χ 2 distribution and setting the degrees of freedom equal to the number of unidentified parameters plus the number of constraints (Goldfeld and Quandt 1976). For this specification, we have 67 degrees of freedom; at 1 % significance level, this yields a critical value of 96.83, well below our likelihood ratio statistic.

  15. Here, we are following Hartley (1978) in assigning regime membership using the cutoff probability of 0.5. That is, bequest regime households are those households that have a probability of greater than 0.5 of being in the bequest regime.

  16. Placing this result together with the findings from the regime separation that bequest dowries tend to be much larger may explain the overall absence of dowry inflation observed by Logan and Arunachalam (2014).

  17. In Table 5, we label the regimes as “price” and “bequest” for convenience.

  18. Summary statistics are computed using the full sample of marriages, which includes 21 for which year of marriage cannot be recovered.

  19. Reported dowry amounts between husband and wife are reasonably correlated; the Pearson correlation coefficient is 0.61. All results are qualitatively similar when we exclude husbands’ dowry reports.

  20. Volumes compiled before partition but published afterward are simply called Statistical Abstract, India.

  21. Details of the sources as well as unit conversions are given in Table 6.


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We are grateful for helpful comments from Pranab K. Bardhan, Chang-Tai Hsieh, Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, Lung-Fei Lee, Ronald D. Lee, David I. Levine, Ian McLean, Manisha Shah, and numerous seminar and conference participants at UC Berkeley, The Ohio State University. We would particularly like to thank J. Bradford DeLong, Audrey L. Light, and Edward Miguel for several useful discussions and encouragement throughout. Hao Shi and Ranjan Shreshtra provided excellent research assistance. We also thank the anonymous referees and the editor for thoughtful comments which improved the manuscript. The usual disclaimer applies.

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Correspondence to Trevon D. Logan.

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Appendix A.1: Matlab Data

The dataset is described in Rahman et al. (1999). There are 4942 women for whom year of marriage is reported or can be reconstructed from age and age at marriage. In addition, we have 808 previous marriages reported, giving a total of 5750 marriages.Footnote 18 Of these, 1722 women report a positive dowry amount (including in kind transfers). Husbands’ reports are rarer due to the sampling design of the MHSS, and also because for previous marriages only women’s reports of the dowry are available. Of the 1722 positive dowry marriages, in 566 the husband also reported a dowry amount. In an additional 111 marriages, the husband reported a dowry even when the wife did not. This gives a total of 1833 marriages in which a dowry was reported. When both spouses report a dowry amount, we take the average of the reports.Footnote 19 Due to other missing covariates for some marriages, the estimation sample uses 1627 marriages. Some additional notes on variable construction:

  • We use height and weight to calculate Body Mass Index (BMI) and categorize individuals as underweight, normal weight, or overweight/obese using World Health Organization guidelines. The vast majority of the sample (97 % of women and 98 % of men) have a BMI that is classified as normal or underweight.

  • Level of school attainment (primary, low secondary, or high secondary) are assigned from the years of schooling, in accordance with Rahman et al. (2002). The omitted category in the regression results is “wife/husband did not attend school.”

Appendix A.2: Rice Prices

No single source contains rice prices for the entire period, so we constructed a series using the Statistical Abstracts for British India Footnote 20 for the period 1910–1946; the Pakistan Central Statistical Office’s Statistical Yearbook 1955 for 1949; the Pakistan Central Statistical Office’s 20 Years of Pakistan in Statistics for 1950-1967; and the Statistical Yearbooks of Bangladesh for 1965-1996.Footnote 21 Duplicate observations for the years 1964 to 1967 were used to convert between takas and rupees, and overlapping medium and common rice prices for the years 1950 to 1967 are used to convert between rice qualities. We used a linear interpolation to cover the missing years (1947–1948). Real dowries are expressed in (medium quality) rice kilograms.

Appendix A.3: Sex Ratio

Constructing a sex ratio time series has proven treacherous in previous dowry work (Edlund 2000; Rao 2000). We adopt a simple approach that takes account of the mortality trajectory in the years between Census records. We calculate the sex ratio from the Census Records of India (1931, 1941), Pakistan (1951, 1961), and Bangladesh (1974, 1984). Where possible, we use the lowest level of geographic detail to correspond with the district in the Matlab study, although this was not possible for early years of the Census records, particularly the Indian Census records. Taking the count of males and females in the Census year, we construct the adjusted sex ratio as described by Rao (1993), where the adjusted sex ratio gives the number of males aged 20–29 divided by the number of females aged 10–19. We calculate the relevant ratio for each age group, from ages 10 to age 90, using the same ten year differential.

For the years between the Census years, the cohorts’ age and mortality, particularly child mortality in the earlier years of our records, is pronounced, so the relevant sex ratio for each age must be adjusted for mortality each year. We use the actual number of males and females in the Census year, and then use the period lifetable constructed with the Census records to derive an estimate of survivorship to the next age ( n q x ). Since these values will differ for both men and women, the sex ratio will change for the years between Censuses. For example, males aged 20–29 in 1961 will be aged 25–34 in 1966, and the best available estimate for the fraction of men surviving to that age would be the period survival rate for men aged 25–34 in 1961. For the final Census we use, we create a quasi-synthetic cohort and assume that the course of mortality over the subsequent years will be the same as for the later cohorts whose mortality trajectory is recorded in the Census.

Table 6 Sources for rice price

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Arunachalam, R., Logan, T.D. On the heterogeneity of dowry motives. J Popul Econ 29, 135–166 (2016).

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  • Dowries
  • Marriage transfers
  • Switching models

JEL Classification

  • C34
  • D10
  • J12