Is Scarcity Making Women More Valuable?
|A potentially important avenue through which an increase in women’s value may show up is in the marriage market.|
When something is in short supply, common sense suggests that it should become more valuable. This intuition is borne out in the market for goods and services as well as the labor market.
But could this logic also apply to women?
According to India’s 2011 census, the sex ratio for children under six was recorded as 914 females to 1,000 males, a decline from 927 in 2001. The biologically normal sex ratio is 950 females to 1,000 males. This precipitous drop in the number of girls reflects the cultural fact of “son preference” as manifested through sex-selective abortion and relative neglect of girls compared to boys, particularly in terms of nutrition and health.
Given that there are fewer women relative to men, has the law of supply and demand kicked in to raise women’s “value”?
Higher economic value could potentially show up in a variety of ways, such as in higher wages for instance, where women still lag men. But it could also be manifested in greater autonomy, self-worth, increased education and labor force participation, reduced crimes against women, and an improvement in other social indicators.
A potentially important avenue through which an increase in women’s value may show up is in the marriage market. The fact that the skewed sex ratio is not a new phenomenon suggests that there should be a relative scarcity of women of marriageable age, reflecting sex-selective abortions of the previous generation.
In a recent study, demographer Christophe Guilmoto projected that in a worst case scenario, there may be as many as 50% more prospective grooms than brides in the coming three decades in India and also in China. This is a new variation on what demographers term the “marriage squeeze.”
One place to look is dowry, which in theory should go down as women become scarcer. While this hasn’t happened, economist Lena Edlund demonstrates for India that dowries at least haven’t risen. Conceivably, a worsening marriage squeeze might mean that dowry is eventually replaced by “brideprice,” which occurs when parents of grooms must pay parents of brides.
Another way to measure a potential increase in the value of women in the marriage market is to see if the bargaining equation has shifted in their favor, or at any rate in favor of their parents as opposed to the parents of prospective grooms.
A much discussed government campaign from 2005 in the state of Haryana is often seen as evidence that this may indeed be happening. The state government launched a campaign popularly known as “No Toilet, No Bride,” which aimed to persuade women and their families that they should not marry a prospective groom unless they have or install a private latrine. The fact that this occurred in Haryana is significant given that along with neighboring Punjab, it has the one of the most skewed sex ratios in the country at 877 girls for 1,000 boys.
Latrines are a hugely important indicator of economic development, because they’re a key to a household’s hygiene and sanitation. Recently, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh noted that more than 50% of Indians have to defecate in public, which he called “a blot on India.” Women are at greatest risk. To avoid the embarrassment, women often defecate in open fields after dark, risking unwanted attention by predators, both human and animal.
Latrine ownership did increase in Haryana, but was it necessarily as a result of the government’s campaign? It could for example have reflected an overall increase in wealth and prosperity, given that Haryana is one of the richest and fastest growing states in India.
A recent study by Yaniv Stopnitzky cleverly gets around this issue by comparing rural households in Haryana with at least one son of marriageable age against those with either a daughter or no kids on the marriage market. He conjectures that the former group will have a greater incentive to invest in a latrine, other things equal, if the program has been a success.
His statistical analysis shows that investment in latrines did indeed increase by an average of 4.3 percentage points, from 28% to 32.3%, or an increase of 15% compared to the base. This was due largely to the program, and ranged from 6% in regions where women are relatively abundant to as high as 23% where women are scarce. Nor does he find evidence that increased spending on sanitation showed up as reducing spending on other things that women might value.
Mr. Stopnitzky interprets his findings as suggesting a shift in bargaining power towards women and away from men, and he attributes this shift to the beneficial effect of the government’s program. But this result needs to be interpreted with caution. As he notes himself, households that invested in latrines also tended to invest in motorbikes, a “male good.” This perhaps reflects an increase in dowry payments by a bride’s family to compensate for the cost of a latrine, but given the available data it is impossible to say if this is what was going on.
On the surface the news appears to be good for women. But does having a latrine or dowry someday giving way to brideprice mean real empowerment and true autonomy?
There’s a big gap between an increase in a woman’s (or her family’s) bargaining power before marriage and the level of independence that she may or may not enjoy after marriage, to say nothing of the workforce or anywhere else.
Getting a latrine certainly gives a woman greater dignity but it’s a long way from real empowerment and true autonomy. And the very term “brideprice” suggests that women are still thought of as just commodities.