Monday, September 6, 2021

Contested forms of marriage: child marriage (and signaling), bride exchange (watta satta), and capture (ala kachuu in Kyrgyz, zij poj niam in Hmong)

 Recent changes in child marriage laws in some U.S. states have reminded me that it is just one of many forms of contested marriage around the world.

Here's an NBC report on child marriage laws in the U.S.:

A child marriage survivor helped ban the practice in New York, but 44 states still allow it Maya Brown

"Child marriage is when someone under the age of 18 becomes legally married to an adult. Such minors, more likely girls than boys, are often forced into marriage because of socioeconomic factors by families who want to minimize their economic burden or earn income as a result of the marriage, according to UNICEF. Religious and cultural norms also contribute to its ongoing practice.


"As of 2020, there were an estimated 285 million child brides in South Asia. About 59 percent of girls are married before the age of 18 in Bangladesh, 27 percent in India and 18 percent in Pakistan, according to data from Girls Not Brides. The Women’s Refuge Commission says South Asian families force their daughters into child marriage as it is perceived to be the best means to provide economic and physical security.

"Even though almost half of all women in South Asia aged 20-24 reported being married before the age of 18, the rates of child marriage are currently decreasing in the region. Amin stressed that child marriage does not happen only to South Asian women, but it also affects women in other countries.

"In Latin America and the Caribbean, about 1 in 4 women are married before 18. Most of the top 20 countries with the highest prevalence rates of child marriage are in Africa, with Niger having the highest child marriage rate in the world. In west and central Africa, about 41 percent of girls in the region marry before reaching the age of 18.

"It also greatly affects women in the U.S., as approximately 40 children are married each day in America. Nearly 300,000 minors under the age of 18 were legally married in the U.S. from 2000 to 2018, according to a recent study. States with the highest per-capita rates of child marriage include Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Nevada and Oklahoma."


Here's a recent NBER paper exploring an intervention, based on the idea that early marriage may signal a girl is a traditional type (not a modern type), and that other ways of signaling this might reduce the incentive to marry early:

A Signal to End Child Marriage: Theory and Experimental Evidence from Bangladesh by Nina Buchmann, Erica M. Field, Rachel Glennerster, Shahana Nazneen & Xiao Yu Wang.  WORKING PAPER 29052, DOI 10.3386/w29052,  July 2021

Abstract: Child marriage remains common even where female schooling and employment opportunities have grown. We introduce a signaling model in which bride type is imperfectly observed but preferred types have lower returns to delaying marriage. We show that in this environment the market might pool on early marriage even when everyone would benefit from delay. In this setting, offering a small incentive can delay marriage of all treated types and untreated non-preferred types, while programs that act directly on norms can unintentionally encourage early marriage. We test these theoretical predictions by experimentally evaluating a financial incentive to delay marriage alongside a girls’ empowerment program designed to shift norms. As predicted, girls eligible for the incentive are 19% less likely to marry underage, as are nonpreferred type women ineligible for the incentive. Meanwhile, the empowerment program was successful in promoting more progressive gender norms but failed to decrease adolescent marriage and increased dowry payments.


Then there's bride exchange, apparently still extant in Pakistan and Afganistan: here's a paper from the AER that interprets it as a kind of hostage exchange...

Jacoby, Hanan G., and Ghazala Mansuri. 2010. "Watta Satta: Bride Exchange and Women's Welfare in Rural Pakistan." American Economic Review, 100 (4): 1804-25.

Abstract: Can marriage institutions limit marital inefficiency? We study the pervasive custom of watta satta in rural Pakistan, a bride exchange between families coupled with a mutual threat of retaliation. Watta satta can be seen as a mechanism for coordinating the actions of two sets of parents, each wishing to restrain their son-in-law. We find that marital discord, as measured by estrangement, domestic abuse, and wife's mental health, is indeed significantly lower in watta satta versus "conventional" marriage, but only after accounting for selection bias. These benefits cannot be explained by endogamy, a marriage pattern associated with watta satta. 


"In traditional societies, where women’s formal legal rights are often weak, divorce is strongly stigmatized, and there is a high premium on female virginity, bargaining power can shift radically in favor of the man once the woman commits herself to marriage. This fact should have implications for the form of the marriage “contract”; in particular, we would expect its ex ante provisions to reflect the interests of the wife and her family in deterring or mitigating ex post malfeasance on the part of the husband.

"In this paper, we argue that exchange marriage in rural Pakistan can play just such a role. Bride exchange, known locally as watta satta (literally, “give-take”), usually involves the simultaneous marriage of a brother-sister pair from two households. Remarkably, watta satta accounts for about a third of all marriages in rural Pakistan. Watta satta is more than just an exchange of daughters, however; it also establishes the shadow of mutual threat across the marriages. As the watta bride quoted above expresses so succinctly, a husband who mistreats his wife in this arrangement can expect his brother-in-law to retaliate in kind against his sister.


"in the end, the evidence is compelling that the peculiar institution of watta satta, with its mutual threat of reciprocity, protects the welfare of women in rural Pakistan."


Of course, bride exchange occurs for other reasons than hostage exchange.  A colleague of mine reports that his grandparents, who emigrated from India to the U.S. in the 1960's, were married in a bride exchange between two brother-sister pairs, whose purpose was to remove the requirement of dowries.  And I know of stories in which a potential bride was doing essential household tasks (e.g. taking care of a disabled brother) and a bride exchange allowed her to marry without those tasks becoming neglected.


And finally, let's not forget marriage by capture, still extant in central Asia, and within living memory a cause of cultural conflict among Hmong immigrants to California and Minnesota among other places.

Here's a very recent story from the Guardian:

Kidnapped, raped, wed against their will: Kyrgyz women’s fight against a brutal tradition. At least 12,000 women are still abducted and forced into marriage every year in Kyrgyzstan. But pressure is growing to finally end the medieval custom.  by Mauro Mondello, 30 Aug 2021

"Known as ala kachuu (“take and run”), the brutal practice of kidnapping brides has its roots in medieval times along the steppes of Central Asia, yet persists to this day. It has been banned in Kyrgyzstan for decades and the law was tightened in 2013, with sentences of up to 10 years in prison for those who kidnap a woman to force her into marriage (previously it was a fine of 2,000 soms, worth about $25).

"The new law has not curtailed the practice, however, and prosecutions are rare. Nevertheless, according to the human rights organisation Restless Beings: “This is a significant development, in that prior to this the sentence for stealing livestock was considerably more than that for ala kachuu.”

“A happy marriage begins by crying,” goes one Kyrgyz proverb, and those tears are of anger and terror at the start of a marriage for ala kachuu brides.

"Ala kachuu is practised in all the countries of Central Asia, but it is especially common in the rural areas of post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, a predominantly Muslim nation of about 6 million people. During Soviet rule, the custom was rare and parents generally arranged marriages.

"Data from the Women Support Center, an organisation that fights for gender equality in the country, indicates that at least 12,000 marriages take place, and are consummated, every year against the will of the bride. (The figure is from a 2011 report and believed to be an underestimate). Men kidnap women, they say, to prove their manhood, avoid courtship (considered a tedious waste of time) and save the payment of the kalym, or dowry, which can cost the groom up to $4,000 (£3,000) in cash and livestock.

"After the ala kachuu, which in some cases can be a consensual “kidnapping” when a couple wishes to speed up the process of marriage, the brides are taken to the house of the future husband. The in-laws welcome the woman and force her to wear the jooluk, a white shawl that signifies submission to the bride’s new family. Then comes the wedding. About 80% of the girls kidnapped accept their fate, often on the advice of their parents.

"According to data from the Unicef office in Bishkek the percentage of girls aged 15 to 19 who become pregnant in Kyrgyzstan is among the highest in the region, while 13% of marriages take place before the age of 18, despite it being illegal. "


And of course courts think differently of immigrant customs and local customs:

Hmong 'marriage by capture' in the United States of America and ukuthwala in South Africa : unfolding discussions  by Lea Mwambene  Published Online:1 Jan 2020 Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern AfricaVol. 53, No. 3

Abstract: 'Marriage by capture' among the Hmong people in the United States of America and ukuthwala in South Africa both take the form of the mock abduction of a young woman for the purpose of a customary marriage. The noteworthy point about these two customary marriage practices is that, although Hmong marriage by capture takes place in the context of a minority community in a liberal state, and ukuthwala occurs in a postcolonial state, courts in these jurisdictions convert these marriage practices to the common law offences of rape, assault, and abduction. This article reflects on the accused-centred approach in the case of People v Moua, in which the court invoked the cultural defence, and the victim-centred approach in Jezile v S, which severed cultural values from the rights of the woman. It questions whether the two communities in question, in their respective liberal and postcolonial settings, influence the attitudes of the courts in cases involving rape, assault, and abduction charges. The main argument proffered is that both approaches may encourage communities to continue marriage abduction practices without bringing them to the attention of investigative organs, with adverse human rights implications for the women and girls affected. The ultimate purpose of this conversation, therefore, is to show how the approaches of the courts to the recognition or non-recognition of these customary practices affect the rights of girls and women who encounter institutions of law that alienate people belonging to minority cultural groups, and often perpetuate injustice.



Deirdre Evans-Pritchard & Alison Dundes Rentein, The Interpretation and Distortion of Culture: A Hmong Marriage by Capture Case in Fresno, California, 4 S. CAL. Interdisc.L. J. 1 (1994)

Different cultural practices and social norms can promote coordination failures and misunderstandings of the gravest sorts: here's a 1988 story from the Los Angeles Times, which starts with the same Fresno case as the above article, and goes on to a very different Minnesota case.

Immigrant Crimes : Cultural Defense--a Legal Tactic  BY MYRNA OLIVER, JULY 15, 1988

"Kong Moua, a Hmong tribesman from the hills of Laos, drove to the Fresno City College campus looking for his intended bride. Locating her at her job in the student finance office, he spirited her away to his cousin’s house.

"Kong Moua called it zij poj niam, or “marriage by capture,” in his culture an accepted form of matrimony akin to elopement.

"However, his “bride,” also a Hmong but more assimilated into American culture, called it kidnaping and rape. She also called the police.

"Kong Moua’s lawyer, in negotiating a plea to the lesser charge of false imprisonment, introduced literature documenting the Hmong marital customs.

"After reading the material, the judge sentenced Kong Moua to 120 days in jail and fined him $1,000, with $900 of that going to the victim as reparations--far less than the state prison term he could have gotten for kidnaping and rape.


"In another Hmong “marriage by capture” case, this one in St. Paul, Minn., Ramsey County Assistant Attorney Daniel Hollihan, decided not to take the case to trial.

"With the help of St. Paul’s Southeast Asian Refugee Study Project, Hollihan learned that in the Hmong “marriage by capture,” the woman or girl, often under 15 years of age, must protest her capture by insisting “No, no, I am not ready” to be considered virtuous and desirable. If the man does not take her by the hand and lead her off to his own home, he is considered too weak to be a husband.

"The prosecutor decided that it would be almost impossible to convince a jury that the girl really meant “no” and had been taken away against her will and raped. So he opted for a plea bargain.

“I went to the victim’s family and said, ‘How would you resolve this in the old country?’ ” Hollihan said.

“The victim’s aunt, who spoke English, told me $3,000 and no jail, $2,000 and 60 days, or $1,000 and 90 days, to restore the family honor and pride,” he said.

"The defendant was allowed to plead guilty to sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 12, and fined $1,000 with no jail time."

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