Child-bride marriage and female welfare

“Child-bride marriage”—the marriage of prepubescent girls to adult men—has well-known nefarious consequences for females in developing countries where such marriage is often practiced. To improve these outcomes, developing-world governments have adopted several policies aimed at raising female marriage age. This paper investigates the effects of these policies for females in developing countries where parents strongly prefer sons to daughters. I find that raising female marriage age in such countries may have the unintended consequence of increasing the prevalence of female infanticide and sex-selective abortion. Where parents strongly prefer sons to daughters, some parents seek to dispose of their unwanted daughters through child-bride marriage, female infanticide, or sex-selective abortion. By raising the cost of child-bride marriage relative to infanticide or abortion, policies that raise female marriage age induce such parents to substitute the latter disposal methods for the former. I evaluate one such policy in Haryana, India and find empirical support for this prediction. My analysis suggests that from the perspective of female welfare, child-bride marriage may be a second-best institution, or constrained optimum, in developing countries that exhibit strong son preference.

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