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Fighting Child Marriage with Cash Transfers

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

22nd April 2023 marks the approach of Akshaya Tritiya, a Hindu festival in India celebrated as an auspicious day to establish new marriages. On this day, thousands of children are married off, particularly in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and many more.

What this points to is a broader problem in India: child marriage. According to a UNICEF report in 2021, the country is home to the largest number of child brides in the world: 223 million, making up a third of the global total. On a global scale, 1 in every 5 girls is married as a child, as per another report, with the highest prevalence of child marriage in Sub-Saharan Africa at 37%, followed by South Asia at 30%.

This leads to a significant incidence of adolescent pregnancies, greater chances of maternal and child mortality, and a heightened risk of experiencing domestic violence in the teenage years. This also perpetuates poverty across generations and disempowers young girls and their children in the long run. In recognition of these harms, the elimination of child marriage by 2030 has become an international commitment under the 5th Sustainable Development Goal of achieving gender equality, rapidly increasing policies and programs to end this practice. While this response has been varied, a tool commonly used to mitigate the problem is cash transfers.

In this article, I will analyze the effect of cash or asset transfers, both conditional and unconditional, on decreasing the rate of child marriages. I will also focus exclusively on arranged child marriages (which are primarily born as a result of parent's and guardian's decisions) instead of self-initiated ones (where adolescents themselves decide to marry or enter an informal union with their partner).

Understanding the Rationale Behind Cash Transfers

Economic pressure is seen to be a key factor motivating child marriages. Marrying your daughter off early is seen to reduce the perceived burden that falls upon families for raising her and paying for her education. In contexts where the payment of dowry is prevalent, the dowry demand rises with age. On the other hand, in regions where bride price is practiced, families struggling economically might decide to marry their daughters off early to benefit from the incoming marriage transaction. As a result, marrying girls off early is seen to reduce the economic burdens on families.

The financial incentives provided by cash and asset transfers to parents (who are the dominant decision-maker in the case of arranged marriages) therefore, work on the logic that they will relax these economic burdens. This approach is favored by many development agencies and policymakers over other prevention methods. A report by the Copenhagen Consensus Centre finds it to be the most effective way to avert child marriages.

However, it should be noted that the relationship between poverty and child marriage is not always clear. Many low and lower-middle-income countries like Rwanda, Tajikistan, and Djibouti show lower rates of child marriage than some upper-middle-income countries, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean. Factors like social norms play a much stronger role in some contexts (Mathers 2021). Therefore, any understanding of how cash transfers affect the rate of child marriage has to be grounded in the knowledge of local marriage practices, their relationship with poverty, and gendered social norms (Sundaram et al., 2018). This is highlighted by the research on the differing impact of conditional and unconditional cash transfers across regions.

Effectiveness of Unconditional Cash Transfers

Unconditional cash transfers are a key part of most countries' poverty alleviation programs. While not many of these are started with the specific intention of delaying marriages, they are seen as a potential pathway to do so.

Unfortunately, UCTs see a lower rate of success than conditional ones. While is believed that UCTs can alleviate the pressures to marry by increasing the economic security of households, a review for Girls Not Brides shows that in most cases, they did not affect the risk of child marriage. However, this outcome differs based on the specific local circumstances. For example, in programs in the Philippines and Malawi, UCTs did indeed result in lowering the rate of child marriage. Both of these are countries where social norms driving child marriage are weaker, and the primary cause is poverty.

The effectiveness of UCTs also depends on where families choose to spend the money. In most cases, this money is used to provide for basic household needs. In some, it is invested in family businesses. Girls may then have to spend more time engaged in economic or domestic work to help out that business. This has mixed benefits because while it acts as an incentive for families to delay their daughter's marriage, it also leads to girls dropping out of school. Some households may use this money to pay for dowry or other marriage costs, allowing for marriage to take place even faster than it would have otherwise. Most families do not use this money to pay for their girls' education. Even when they do, its impact on delaying child marriage is limited, because girls from these families are anyway at a lower risk of being pressured into child marriage.

In conclusion, UCTs impact on child marriage is low and variable depending on local contexts. Let us now look at conditional cash transfers.

Effectiveness of Conditional Cash Transfers

Conditional cash transfers are prevalent programs meant to reduce the rate of child marriage and are, by their very nature, tied to specific, observable, and verifiable outcomes. Countries across the world have adopted them specifically for this goal: the Apni Beti Apna Dhan program in India, Zomba Cash Transfer Program in Malawi, and the Female Secondary School Assistance Program in Bangladesh.

Broadly, two main types of conditional cash transfers exist. The first is contingent on delaying marriage. The second is conditional on the daughter's attendance or performance in school. I will look at both of these individually in this article.

Conditional on Decreasing Child Marriage

Looking at the first one, these conditional cash transfers provide cash/assets to a girl's family when they do not marry her off until a certain age, usually 18 years. While more successful than UCTs in reducing the risk of child marriage, it is important to note that research finds them to have a lower success rate than the latter kind of CCTs.

The bigger problem, however, is that even when they are successful in mitigating child marriage, they lack a systemic approach to addressing the problem. This is because they are not intended to deal with the broader structural problem that leads to child marriage, i.e., the lack of agency of girls in most households. What this means is that even when parents do indeed respond to such financial incentives, we are not able to achieve wider social change through these cash transfers. According to a recent evaluation of ABAD in Haryana by the International Centre for Research on Women, parents simply married their daughters off as soon as they received the money and the girl turned 18. More than half of the respondents used money from the transfer to finance their daughter's marriage.

In effect, parents appear to be tweaking the marriage process just enough to reap the rewards promised by the program. This may involve lengthening the engagement period or entering into prolonged negotiations with the groom's family regarding the terms of the marriage (Amin et al., 2016). In contrast, programs with a focus on improving girls' agency or access to education show significant effects on marriage age.

However, in the end, it is worth acknowledging that CCTs contingent on delaying the age of marriage, are successful in achieving that goal. According to a report, a program from Southern Bangladesh run by Save the Child offered 4 liters of oil every 4 months to parents, conditional upon a monitor confirming that they were still unmarried. (To note, a year's supply of cooking oil costs Tk 1250 per girl.) Recipient girls were up to 30% less likely to marry before 16, and 22% more likely to remain in school. Therefore, such CCTs can have merit in reducing the specific harms of early marriage on girls, even if they don't address the structures causing it.

Conditional on Educational Outcomes

Let us now look at CCTs conditional on educational outcomes, typically judged by school attendance or performance in school above a minimum threshold. This form of conditional cash transfers showed the most success in decreasing child marriage. In the short run, it kept girls in school, primarily because school and marriage are generally perceived to be incompatible in societies where child marriage is common.

In the long run, it translated to wider female empowerment, providing girls with greater aspirations and opportunities. It increased their decision-making power and agency in marriages and the future created a cycle where better-educated girls preferred later marriage for their children, instead choosing to prioritize education.

The limitation, however, that exists with such CCTs is that by design, they are unavailable to girls who do not go to school and are unable or unwilling to re-enroll, making it a particular policy concern in regions where there is a lack of school availability and low quality of education (Mathers 2021).


In conclusion, child marriage remains a pressing concern that demands urgent attention from policymakers all over the world. While cash transfers show some promise in mitigating the issue, it is crucial to keep in mind that we need to adopt a contextualized approach that accounts for local and cultural norms. We must also recognize that instead of seeing child marriage as a problem in a vacuum, we must realize it to be the symptom of a broader issue, i.e., the systematic denial of agency to women and girls. That is the reason why among the various approaches, those that link cash transfers to educational outcomes have demonstrated the most significant success in reducing child marriage rates.














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1 comentario

23 may 2023

Wonderful article .

Stopping child marriage evil from society is a major step towards empowering women

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