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Child Marriage as Informal Insurance: Empirical Evidence and Policy Simulations

This paper investigates the relationship between child marriage and economic incentives in a setting where the bride price - a transfer from the groom to the bride’s parents at marriage - is customary. First, we develop a dynamic model in which households are exposed to income volatility and have no access to credit markets. If a daughter marries, her household obtains a bride price. In this framework, girls may have a higher probability of marrying early when their parents have a higher marginal utility of consumption because of adverse income shocks. Second, we measure the responsiveness of child marriage to income fluctuations by exploiting variation in rainfall shocks over a woman’s life cycle, using a survey dataset from rural Tanzania. We find that adverse shocks during teenage years increase the probability of early marriages. Third, we use these empirical results to estimate the parameters of our model and isolate the role of the bride price custom for consumption smoothing. In counterfactual exercises, we show that enforcing child marriage bans can have lasting effects on the timing of marriage even after a woman has exceeded the minimal age of marriage. The utility cost to parents of such enforcement is relatively small. Cash transfers, both conditional on avoiding child marriage and unconditional, can reduce early marriages, especially when they target low-income households.

wp2026.pdf (2.17 MB)
Lucia Corno
Alessandra Voena
Publication Date
April, 2022