Cash, a Buffalo, and a Bicycle
That’s what GangaRam got as dowry when he married at age 10. It’s a pretty common dowry for a wedding in the Terai region of Nepal—often a young boy marrying a child bride. It’s a lot for a Nepali family, and still such a small price, considering everything children who are married have to give up. Dowry is a huge factor child marriage, and one of the biggest reasons people give when you ask why they marry their sons and daughters as children.
Dowry is a baffling concept for your average American. How could you sell your child for any price, but especially for a buffalo and a bicycle? But until we understand dowry, we’re never going to be able to engage with communities that value it as a critical part of their marriage systems. It’s a complicated issue, with a lot of facets.
One problem is definition. In South Asia, dowry is what the bride’s parents pay to the groom and his family to cover the cost of caring for her. For these families, it’s not selling a child; it is ensuring her care for the future (at least in theory). A second problem is in the scope of dowry. Regardless of the definition, dowry is a transaction that has huge financial repercussions for a family.
So what is cash, a buffalo, and a bicycle worth? It doesn’t sound like much from the US—about $450 worth in total, the cost of an iPad. It’s nice to have, but not worth risking a child’s future. Even if you were spending it responsibly, $450 doesn’t cover much—an average weeks’ worth of rent in Washington DC, where I live. But I did a little digging about what you can get for cash, a buffalo, and a bicycle in the Terai region of Nepal where we work, and I’m still a little dazed by the results.
For one thing, $450 translates to FOUR YEARS of the average income for that area. Four years of income is a substantial investment for anyone to think about. And it’s not just the monetary value that matters. A bicycle is transportation to be able to work, to go to the market, to get around the community—the equivalent of a car here. A buffalo helps on the farm—the primary source of income for most families. According to Heifer International, one water buffalo allows a farmer to plant 4 times as many crops, as well as providing fertilizer and nutritious food for the family.
Suddenly, what to me seems like an amount of money that would buy a consumer luxury or pay for a week of housing is 4 years of income, quadrupling my annual salary, better food, and a car. Doing the math for DC, that would be about $176,000 for the initial infusion, and over half a million dollars in increased income for your average resident over 3 years—the length of time before a buffalo can breed. Nearly $800,000 worth of dowry doesn’t make child marriage acceptable, but it is enough money to make anyone pay attention.
Not only is $450 a huge amount of money in Nepal, but for every year they wait to marry their daughter, a family expects see that number rise. Parents usually say that a girl’s dowry gets higher as the girl gets older and more educated, for a variety of reasons. Prospective in-laws worry about whether she is still a virgin, how biddable she will be in her new home, and why she isn’t married already. Parents who don’t get their daughter married when they can afford it risk never being able to get her married at all. And for a girl in rural Nepal, marriage is the only option for a socially acceptable and secure future.
Reassessing dowry transactions is one way to not only help families delay marriage for their children, but also to save massive amounts of money for families to invest elsewhere. Families could put money towards priorities like education or alternate opportunities for all of their children. That’s why CARE’s Tipping Point project is exploring dowry as a primary factor in child marriage—to see how we can transform a practice that is causing so much harm into an investment in the future.
About the Author: Emily Janoch is the Knowledge and Learning Advisor for CARE USA's Gender and Empowerment team. She has 9 years experience in international development, focusing on how to work with communities to get solutions that work for them. She has a Masters' in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.