Financial Transfers: Bride-Price, Dowry, and Assets Brought to Marriage

In many developing countries, especially in Africa and Southern Asia, marriage has traditionally involved not only the selection of a mate by one’s family but also the transfer of gifts, cash, valuables, and consumer goods from the groom’s family to the bride’s or vice versa. When this transfer is from the bride’s family to the groom’s family, it is known as dowry or more precisely groom-price; when the transfer is from the groom’s family to the bride’s family, it is known as bridewealth or bride-price. The direction and amount of the transfer may affect the timing of marriage as well as the relationship between husband and wife, particularly in the early years of marriage, as well as, just as importantly given the nature of living arrangements, the relationship between the groom or bride and his or her spouse’s family.

The conventional explanation given for bride-price is that, in societies in which women do much of the agricultural work, this transfer, whether in cash or in kind, reimburses the bride’s family for the loss of her future labor (Amin and Cain, 1997; Boye et al., 1991). The explanation given for dowry is that it compensates men in societies in which women’s labor has little market value (Amin and Cain, 1997). Dowry has taken a somewhat different form in developing countries than it did in Western Europe historically, where it was considered a premortem inheritance for the bride (Billig, 1992). Whereas in Europe, the intended recipient of the dowry was the bride, in Southern Asia, the dowry is not given to the bride; rather, property and payments are transferred to the groom and his family. Billig (1992) and others thus argue that the correct expression for this transfer is not dowry, in the traditionally European sense, but groom-price.

By far, the more common form of exchange is from the groom’s family to the bride’s. Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas indicates that, as of the early 1980s in approximately two-thirds of the 1,267 societies catalogued, bridewealth is normative, whereas dowry is prevalent in just 6 percent (cited in Bhat and Halli, 1999). However, the countries in which dowry is common have much larger populations. Moreover, the literature on dowry is more extensive, perhaps because the value of the transfer is much greater in dowry and therefore the impact on the parties involved that much more significant.


In sub-Saharan Africa, where bride-price dominates, it traditionally took the form of gifts of food and drink (van de Walle and Meekers, 1994). For example, among the Kassem and Nankam of northern Ghana, kola nuts and guinea fowl were given by the boy to the girl’s family as part of the

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