What are the different marriage wealth-exchange practices?

In many cultures marriage is not only considered a union between the two people who are getting married, but also an alliance between their families or kinship groups. This means the choice of partner has far-reaching contractual and economic considerations and is associated with specific mechanisms of marriage wealth-exchange.

In such situations, marriage is a contractual arrangement which is strongly influenced by the economic modes of production (foraging, horticulture, pastoralism or intensive agriculture) of the society, the resulting relations of production and the possibility of wealth accumulation.

This interconnecting web of values, beliefs and practices also impacts where the married couple live after marriage, as well as the status of women.

What is the difference between bridewealth and dowry and how do they impact women’s status?

Bridewealth and dowry are two different mechanisms of marriage wealth-exchange.

When a man pays compensation (e.g., money, cattle or land) to the bride’s family, the amount paid is called the bridewealth or brideprice. This happens most often in societies which practice pastoral or intensive agriculture modes of production, which enable men to accumulate wealth. If the society is one where wealth accumulation is difficult, the groom might instead offer brideservice, committing himself to a period of time working for the bride’s family.

The bridewealth / brideprice /brideservice is meant to be a compensation to the family for the loss of a “worker”, however in practice it is a way of accumulating wealth. Men who want to increase their landholdings or herds make sure to sell their daughters, sisters or any other women in their family grouping for the highest price possible. The women in question have no say in the arrangements made and do not receive any of the assets exchanged between the men.

When a man pays compensation to the bride’s family, the payment is called the bridewealth, brideprice or brideservice.

Bridewealth as a marriage wealth-exchange mechanism

In these situations, women obviously do not have high status – they are merely pawns in a game of chess played by men. Men make all the decisions and men own all the resources in the family.  It is also important to note that societies such as these are usually patrilocal and patrilineal. This means that the bride lives with the husband’s family after marriage, losing the protection of her own family, which of course also impacts her safety and her status.

A dowry, on the other hand, occurs when the family pays the groom for marrying their daughter. The dowry is supposed to be the daughter’s inheritance, paid to her early, but in truth it is the groom who receives the assets and controls them. In societies such as these women suffer from low status, and in some cases are seen to be a burden on their families.

When a family pays a groom for marrying their daughter, the payment is called a dowry.

Dowry as a marriage wealth-exchange mechanism

Dangerous implications of marriage wealth-exchange practices

In certain situations, the dowry practice endangers women. In India, for example, female foetuses are often aborted as soon as their gender is identified, because the cost to the family of an abortion is much lower than the cost of the dowry when she grows up and gets married.

The risk continues even after marriage, in cases where the groom and his family view dowries as a method of wealth accumulation. This might lead them to approach the bride’s family after marriage for even more dowry. If this is not available there are cases where the groom and his family injure the woman or even kill her.

In India, for example, there are many cases of women “accidentally” getting splashed with cooking oil and suffering disfiguring or even lethal burns. If the woman is disfigured this is then used as an excuse to divorce her, freeing up the man who can then find another bride and negotiate another dowry. The same, of course, applies if the woman dies.

Finally, there are societies that practice a mix of the two different marriage wealth-exchanges – with the bride’s family giving a dowry to start off the married pair’s wealth accumulation and the husband’s family giving a symbolic bridewealth to seal the deal. In such societies women have better status and are safer than in the abovementioned situations.

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