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Alison Andrew, Senior Research Economist, the Institute for Fiscal Studies

Globally, around 15 million girls marry before age 18 every year and 61 million school-aged girls are out of school.  Leaving school early and marrying young makes it harder for women to find fulfilling work. And since they typically marry much older men, this leaves them vulnerable to having very little say within their marriage on important questions such as if, and when, to have children and whether or not to work. 

Economics is the study of human behaviour: what choices do people make and why. Given the negative implications of early marriage, we wanted to understand why girls, or their parents, were so often making this choice. Do they not value school? Do they think girls will seem “too smart”, and so men won’t want to marry them? Do they just think men won’t be interested once they get older? It quickly becomes clear a key part of unpicking this puzzle is understanding the preferences of men as well as the preferences of girls and their parents. Girls and their parents are making choices based on what they think men will value in a bride. 

Given the negative implications of early marriage, we wanted to understand why girls, or their parents, were so often making this choice.

These are some of the questions a colleague and I have been trying to answer recently. And we’ve been doing so in rural Rajasthan, in North India. Here early school dropout and marriage are very common – one third of girls leave school by age 16 and one third marry by age 18.  We wanted to understand why parents’ make encourage or enforce early marriage, but we were aware this is a sensitive topic. Parents might feel uncomfortable telling an interviewer about their plans for their own daughter.

Instead we told parents a series of stories about fictional parents who were making decisions over the education and marriage of their daughter. We asked them what they thought the parents would choose if they were faced with different options for their daughter. Getting the scenarios, and the wording, right was tricky and we tried out many different versions before settling on the final one.

The power of an economic model is that it allows us to learn from these answers which aspect of a choice are most important. We were able to see that parents thought finding a husband would quickly get harder as their daughters grew older. Since finding a husband is important, this creates pressure for early marriage. But parents also know that education is valuable for their daughter, and they thought husbands would value it too. This creates an important tradeoff: more access to education improves marriage prospects, and reduces the need to marry early. This is yet another reason to invest in girls’ education.

Other issues: Inequality | Climate change

Image credit: survey tool from “Why do parents invest in girls’ education? Evidence from rural India”, VoxDev. Reproduced by permission of Alison Andrew