About 75% of the world’s population live in societies that practice of form of dowry payment. This is also known as brideprice and it is essentially wealth that a potential husband must pay to the family of his would-be wife. But in this way, brideprice acts as a kind of regressive flat tax that younger, and generally poorer men must pay to wealthier, older men.

Hilary Matfess, a PHD candidate at Yale University, undertook a wide study of the impact of fluctuations in brideprice on broader issues related to conflict. She found that there is a positive correlation between changes in brideprice and the outbreak of violent conflict. In other words, when the cost of getting married increases, so too does the probability of armed conflict.

Hilary Matfess published her findings a paper published in the 2017 issues of the academic journal International Security. In it, she and her co-author Valerie Hudson identify how the cost of getting married can lead to the outbreak of violent conflict and war.

Anyone who has ever taken an international relations or security class knows that there are volumes of research on what causes the outbreak of violent conflict. Through case studies, which Matfess discusses in this conversation, the paper demonstrates how fluctuations in brideprices can lead to the outbreak of violent conflict. It is fascinating research with very real-world policy implications.

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What’s up first?

Bride prices are often lumped together with dowries. We make a distinction between the two. Bride price is the payment by a male suitor to the family for his intended bride. That is a prerequisite for marriage in a lot of societies where this is practiced. As we were formulating this paper, we started unpacking all of the ways in which this overt transfer of wealth from a young man to an older man, who represents the bride’s family, entrenches patriarchal systems. When you look at it like a Venn Diagram, there is a significant overlap there. So, we looked at how bride price reinforces those patrilineal systems of social control and economic predominance

75% of the world’s population live in societies where this is practiced. It is incredibly common, right?

Yes. That factoid came from the Women’s Stats Project, which is a great resource by the way.

What are factors that go into setting a bride price or raising it?

In general, it is related to the status of the women. I read a paper that suggest the effect of girls education could be variable on bride price. So it depends on local values, systems of socio-economic privilege, and what it comes down to is, regardless of what a young man earns or doesn’t earn, bride price is not dependent on male income. It is dependent on the valuing of women. This, to me, read similar to the Occupy Wall Street Protest. In a number of places where bride price is practiced, so is polygamy. Men will benefit from having multiple wives by extracting their labor, not to go into feminist Marxist analysis. But it is the case that you will get a concentration of bride wealth amongst the elite. So in regard to younger men, there was, in my research, a frustration with the system of not responding to their socio-economic marginalization.

So older, wealthier men accumulate wives and younger men have a harder time finding them at a decent price?

Right. One thing I wanted to unpack is the centrality of the role of marriage in a number of these societies to your achievement of manhood or womanhood. In the West, and in America certainly, marriage is important, but there has become less of an emphasis on it. However in these societies, to be blocked from marriage isn’t just being blocked from taking a wife, but it is being blocked from a social ritual that validates you as a man and member of society.

There is a lot of research that has been conducted over the years that demonstrates that having disaffected young men in particular is a contributor to war and conflict, right?

I took a course called “anthropologists for strategists” and we read a piece that stated – adolescence is a social problem. Managing a youth bubble is profoundly difficult. In North East Nigeria, you have a situation where the production of oil has made the country wealthy but leaves that wealth is concentrated in very few hands. In the North, it has led to this collapse of an industrial manufacturing base that was at one point a significant employer. The country is elevating, but there is a large mass of disaffected youth and demographics unable to find work. This means they are unable to earn the economic capital to take a wife and develop the social capital to become a respected member of society.

How does this make the leap from a social problem to contributing to violent conflict as your paper demonstrates?

The vast majority of my experience is in North East Nigeria. This piece was triggered by interviews I conducted with folks on the ground. One of the things I found striking when interviewing members of the railway neighborhood where Boko Haram was founded, was what Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, was originally like. People kept bringing up how often he would organize marriages for his members. I did not know it was so difficult and central to society there. Bride price in that period had risen precipitously and there were a number of people, the un or underemployed, who were unable to get married. Those were also the people who were drawn to Yusuf because of his condemnation of the system. So, he would often arrange these low cost or free marriages for his members. When we were considering other case studies, I  remembered a discussion I went to at the US Institute of Peace where someone mentioned something similar in South Sudan. Many men were joining armed gangs to rustle cattle in order to be able to pay the bride price, which was often paid in cattle. This led to cycles of violence.

You demonstrated that bride prices increased substantially following South Sudan’s independence in 2011. The cattle rustling that people found it necessary to do, often was done through gangs with an ethnic affiliations that have later become increasingly apparent as the country slides into civil war between some of the dominant ethnic groups. 

Right. When I originally presented this idea to some of the harder security folks, people raised an eyebrow. But the comparison I found that makes it click for people is this, following the Arab Spring, the prices of staple crops were rising. People were linking that rise in price, which was disproportionately affecting lower socio-economic classes, to the government’s fault. Quite literally, man cannot live on bread alone. It is not just economic pressure from staple goods that would lead people to be frustrated enough to take action against a system, but also barriers against social rights of passage.

So back to the Boko Haram suggestion, you’re suggesting that by doing these mass marriage ceremonies in which bride prices were paid for or reduced was a way to attract young men?

Yes, by lowering that barrier to marriage he attracted support and members to his organization. It was one of a number of tools he used to attract members. There was chronic justification that he turned to. In the Quran there was a ceiling for a bride price, but that was regularly disregarded by Christian and Muslim communities in the area. Not only was this a tangible way to support his members, but it also came with a social cache that you held the higher/moral ground because you were interpreting and living by the Quran in a way that this society was not.

The flipside of having these lower priced marriage ceremonies is the fact that Boko Haram kidnaps young women. What does your research say around the effect of kidnapping women?

I published a book called “Women and the War on Boko Haram”. There are two areas of that I would like to unpack. Boko Haram’s abduction of women and girls is a way to provide wives for their members. One of the men I talked to who escaped from Boko Haram told me that Boko Haram rewards its fighters with wives, so that contributes to your accumulation of social capital. But a number of women joined Boko Haram voluntarily, in part because the group made it easy for them to achieve womanhood because the group practices wife seclusion. It is something I find fascinating. As a young, Western feminist I kick against this idea that wife seclusion is a way for a woman to exercise autonomy. But I was speaking to a number of women who joined voluntarily but were rescued by the military. They would say that life was easier with Boko Haram. They did not have to work on the farm but could do domestic chores. They were also given access to chronic education. Despite the fact that Boko Haram is a brutal insurgency, they expend a significant proportion on education, or indoctrination, for its members through daily preaching and tutoring. Even the women who are abducted are subject to that. It is interesting how Boko Haram has capitalized on the frustration felt by marginalized youth. Basically, it could provide young men or women with significant social capital to  live the life that was previously denied to them.

You found a correlation between rising bride prices to be a contributing factor to violent conflict. Can you discuss what Saudi Arabia is doing to control the bride price market?

Sure, that example was really interesting. When you unpack the export of terrorism from Saudi Arabia, there is a lot of grievance related to young men. Demographically, it has a lot of similar characteristics to the societies we say are at risk of violence because of bride price dynamics. But their government has sort of recognized the instability within the marriage markets and has worked with communities to establish voluntary caps on bride price. They perform large group ceremonies which significantly reduce that barrier to access that is such a catalyst for violence in Nigeria and South Sudan.

What is the going rate for getting married?

I actually do not know it at present and it is fluctuating. What was interesting is that amongst a lot of the displaced communities, bride price is falling precipitously. In some areas that are in the processes of recovering from Boko Haram, religious leaders were instituting a cap on the bride price that made it more feasible but not offensive. In general, however, the prices would certainly be more than someone makes in a year.

In South Sudan you gave the example of how after independence in 2011, the bride prices shot up from 40 head of cattle to 100.

Right, there was a report that found that at the rate cattle was selling, weddings could cost between 10,000 and 60,000 USD. And as a reminder, that is a transition of wealth from a young, unemployed man to an older, established man. So, it is a regressive flat tax. It does not take into account the fluctuation in male earnings, but it is an intergenerational transfer of wealth that favors those who have already accumulated significant amounts of social and economic capital.

I would love to get your thoughts on the significance of getting this published in International Security.

Dr. Hudson, my co-author, has written elegantly and powerfully on how the best predictor of whether a state will experience intra or inter-state conflict is the status of women within its borders. Bride price has a strong, gendered dynamic to it. So, we need to understand gender relations and the status of women. The ways in which we have been gathering intelligence in this region has not taken into account the different standards as they relate to women’s dress or to societal expectations. I think in North Eastern Nigeria and elsewhere, the western security establishment is overlooking over a lot of gendered, early warning indicators.

One of the conclusions of your report, however, is not to educate more women but that governments should do what they can to put caps on bride prices to prevent conflict.

There is a strong contingency within feminist advocacy to end bride price in general as a practice. I have seen compelling evidence coming out of Uganda about that. Girls education is a worthy aspiration. What we are advocating here is to be pragmatic and accept that these are market dynamics that will not disappear overnight. So if countries are interested in stability, then they need to recognize that this is a destabilizing market dynamic and it is in their power to intervene.

Shownotes by Lydia DeFelice



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