“Child-bride marriage”—the marriage of prepubescent girls to adult men—has well-known nefarious consequences for females in developing countries where such marriage is often practiced. To improve these outcomes, developing-world governments have adopted several policies aimed at raising female marriage age. This paper investigates the effects of these policies for females in developing countries where parents strongly prefer sons to daughters. I find that raising female marriage age in such countries may have the unintended consequence of increasing the prevalence of female infanticide and sex-selective abortion. Where parents strongly prefer sons to daughters, some parents seek to dispose of their unwanted daughters through child-bride marriage, female infanticide, or sex-selective abortion. By raising the cost of child-bride marriage relative to infanticide or abortion, policies that raise female marriage age induce such parents to substitute the latter disposal methods for the former. I evaluate one such policy in Haryana, India and find empirical support for this prediction. My analysis suggests that from the perspective of female welfare, child-bride marriage may be a second-best institution, or constrained optimum, in developing countries that exhibit strong son preference.
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Data on the percent of girls who become young brides—females aged 20–24 married by age 18—refer to the most recent year available during the period 2005–2013 (UNICEF 2014).
I use Demographic and Health Surveys for all 50 countries surveyed between 1990 and 1999, relying on the most recent survey for countries surveyed multiple times during this period. These data are also used below to compare women who marry by age 12 with those who marry later, and in Sect. 3 to measure son preference across developing countries. I obtain similar patterns using the countries surveyed between 2000 and 2009 (DHS 2000–2009).
To the best of my knowledge, there exist no data that allow me to precisely identify prepubescent brides—females whose age at menarche strictly exceeds their age at marital cohabitation—for as large a cross-section of countries as this conservative married-by-12 proxy. Data from India’s National Family Health Survey 1992–1993, however, where such data are available, results in similar patterns as those discussed below when comparing prepubescent and post-pubescent Indian brides (see NFHS-1 1995; Leeson and Suarez 2016).
The average male reaches puberty at approximately 14 years old (Palmert and Boepple 2001).
The World Health Organization defines wasting as a weight-for-height index that is two or more standard deviations below the reference median population. It similarly defines stunting as a height-for-age index that is two or more standard deviations below the reference median population. For more information, visit: www.who.int/nutrition/topics/moderate_malnutrition/en/
Questions regarding female autonomy were only available for one country between 1990 and 1999 (Zimbabwe), and those regarding domestic violence were not asked until 2000. Such figures thus correspond to the 2000–2009 period.
Son preference has been attributed to, for example, kinship systems, land holdings, agricultural activity, religion, and ability to care for parents in old age (see, for instance, Rosenzweig and Schultz 1982; Mutharayappa et al. 1997; Das Gupta et al. 2003; Pande and Malhotra 2006; Chung and Das Gupta 2007; Pande and Astone 2007; Chakraborty and Kim 2010; Arokiasami and Goli 2012; Vanneman et al. 2012; Alesina et al. 2013; Gupta 2014; Jain 2014; Mitra 2014; Klaus and Tipandjan 2015; Xue 2015).
This ratio excludes children in ever-married females’ ideal child bundle whose sex “does not matter.” Nearly 80% of ever-married females’ ideal child bundles contain zero such children.
Anecdotal evidence from China and India, two of the most son-preferring nations in the world, suggests that girls are more likely to be abandoned in orphanages than boys, and that other couples are unwilling to adopt these daughters as their own (see, for example, Thurston 1996; Johnson 1993; Russell 2007; Hui and Blanchard 2014).
For an excellent account of international law’s treatment of early marriage and its evolution, see Kim et al. (2013).
Among more unusual efforts to reduce early female marriage, Central Malawi’s Dedza District Senior Chief, Theresa Kachindamoto, annulled over 850 child marriages in the last three years because her sub-chiefs continued to approve marriages involving females younger than the legal minimum marriage-age of 18. She then sent hundreds of these former young brides back to school, often subsidizing their school fees with her personal income or by finding other willing sponsors (see, for example, Grossman 2016; McNeish 2016).
For more information on ICRW’s, MAMTA Health Institute for Mother and Child’s, and Landesa’s projects, visit: http://www.icrw.org/where-we-work?region=All&country=All&work=5&status=All, http://mamta-himc.org/know-us/, and http://www.landesa.org/what-we-do/india/, respectively.
Other smaller-scale programs in India have rewards ranging from 9,000 to 100,000 Indian Rupees (Sekher 2012: 15). The largest of these would still be insufficient to cover the estimated costs above. In other countries, CCTs similarly typically provide insufficiently-large rewards. For example, in Ethiopia, the Berhane Hewan project provided parents with a goat upon their daughter’s “graduation” from the program if she had remained unmarried throughout the 2-year period. At the time of graduation, a goat was worth about 20 USD (Erulkar and Muthengi 2009: 8). Additionally, girls who stayed or returned to school received about 4 USD worth of school materials, and those who asked about family planning had the cost of their clinic card (2 USD) covered by the project. In 1994 in Bangladesh, the government launched a scholarship program whereby girls in 7th and 8th grade received a monthly stipend of about 1 to 2 USD if they remained in school and unmarried (Amin and Sedgh 1998: 9; Arends-Kuenning and Amin 2000: 6).
A similar proxy is constructed by Sinha and Yoong (2009).
Using a similar approach, Sinha and Yoong (2009) find a positive and significant impact of ABAD on the ratio of living female children to living male children. By evaluating ABAD’s effect on the female/male ratio of living children, Sinha and Yoong’s analysis precludes finding ABAD’s potential effect on unborn or unreported children killed in infancy (i.e. sex-selective abortion and infanticide). Their results are thus consistent with mine since, conditional on being born, a daughter is more likely to be desired rather than unwanted, especially when ABAD leads son-preferring parents to substitute abortion and infanticide as means of unwanted daughter disposal. Thus, all else equal, we would expect ABAD to promote the survival of living female children relative to living male children while simultaneously inducing a higher prevalence of female infanticide and sex-selective abortion.
See, for instance, the cover and back photographs of the UNFPA’s report Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage (2012), and the photographs exhibited at http://tooyoungtowed.org/. By “child marriage,” the international community typically refers to marital unions involving at least one party under the age of 18.
I thank an anonymous reviewer for highlighting the two-way causal relationship between son preference and female outcomes, particularly labor market outcomes.
On the tradeoff between pre- and post-natal sex-selection, see Lin et al. (2014).
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I thank Peter Leeson, Chris Coyne, the Editors, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions. I gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the Classical Liberal Institute at New York University School of Law.
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Suarez, P.A. Child-bride marriage and female welfare. Eur J Law Econ 45, 1–28 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10657-017-9562-7
- Child brides
- Female welfare
- Minimum marriage-age
- Conditional-cash transfer
- Educational program