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Love, marriage, and development: 4 observations

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For many, marriage is the pinnacle—the ultimate celebration of love. However, the marriage market is not just motivated by love and compatibility, but also reflects a plethora of social and economic factors (see this review). In the classic example of Rosenzweig and Stark (1989), marriage is a consumption smoothing and risk-coping mechanism. The likelihood of marriage can be influenced by marital aspirations, emotional attraction, pregnancy, and independence from kin.

Social and economic factors also affect when people get married. Both dowry (bride to groom) and bride price (groom to bride) may incentivize parents to marry their daughters at an earlier age (see this review). However, a temporal income shock can change the incentive structure in these two different practices: delay (with dowry) and hasten (with bride price) the daughters’ marriage. And events like orphanhood also influence the timing of first marriage.

Marriage is then a complex mish-mash of personal and family decisions, of economic and social factors.

We explore marriage patterns, in terms of age of first marriages, around the world using cross-country sex-disaggregated indicators on the World Bank Gender Data Portal. Due to limited cross-country data availability, we only look at heterosexual marriages.

  1. In all regions, women marry younger than men and the average age of first marriage is slowly increasing for both men and women.

In 2015, on average, women first marry at the age of 24 and men at 27. It varies across regions. South Asia has the lowest age of first marriage for both women and men: 20 and 25, respectively. Europe and Central Asia has the highest: 27 for women and 30 for men.

The average age of first marriage increased worldwide by one year for both men and women since 1995. The most substantial increase occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean. For men, it increased from 26 in 1995 to 28 in 2015 and, for women, from 23 in 1995 to 26 in 2015.

Age of first marriage has implications for educational attainment, labor force participation, health, and risk of violence. In some contexts, once an individual exits formal schooling, they never return.  Women also tend to disproportionately bear the responsibility for childcare, which causes them to exit the labor force upon childbirth.

  1. Early marriage is correlated with having more children.

In countries where women marry later, they have fewer births in their lifetime. Women who marry at age of 21, on average, have 3.1 births, while women who marry at the age of 25 have 2.4 births.  The declining pattern seems to taper off after around two births, which is the population replacement rate.

Researchers often use age of first marriage and spousal age gap as proxies for female agency. When women marry younger, they tend to have a big age gap with their husbands, which in turn, is associated with lower decision-making ability. Young brides may not be able to negotiate safe sex with their husbands, resulting in early childbearing and higher fertility. In Africa and Latin America, it is also associated with higher HIV infection rates.

  1. The marriage age gap between men and women decreases with the country’s income level.

As a country’s income increases, both men and women marry later. However, women’s age of first marriage increases faster with income than that of men’s. Therefore, the gap in the age of first marriage is decreasing with country’s income. 

One plausible explanation: richer countries tend to have higher educational attainment. Evidence from the U.S. suggests that individuals with more schooling are more likely to interact and marry similar-aged peers.

  1. Child marriage is still pervasive especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia

The latest statistics on child marriage are staggering. On average, more than 1 in 5 women were first married by the age of 18. This varies significantly across and within regions. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have the highest rates, at 34% and 29%, respectively. They also have the largest variations. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the rates of child marriage go from a low of 4% in South Africa, to a median of 32% in Comoros, and to a high of 76% in Niger. In South Asia, it goes from a low of 2% in Maldives to a high of 59% in Bangladesh. 

Apart from being a form of violence against girls, child marriage also has real economic costs with substantial repercussions on earnings, productivity, and consumption per capita; private and public expenditures; and non-monetary and social costs (see Ending child marriage is the right thing to do: socially and economically.

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