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I.2.3 Marriage payments (bride wealth and dowry).

In about 75% of the societies known to anthropology, one or more explicit economic transactions take place before or after the marriage. Such economic transactions may take several forms: bride price, bride service, exchange of females, gift exchange, dowry or indirect dowry.

I. Bridewealth– Or bride-price or marriage payment, is a gift of money or goods from the groom or his kin to the bride’s kin. The gift usually grants the groom the right to marry the bride and the right to her children. It may be paid in goods, money, land or livestock.

  1. Done in order to ratify a marriage.
  2. In such cultures, a marriage is not reckoned to have ended until the return of bridewealth has been acknowledged, signifying divorce.

The payment of bridewealth is most often a matter of social and symbolic as well as economic reciprocity, being part of a long series of exchanges between the two intermarrying families. It consolidates friendly relations between them, provides a material pledge that the woman and her children will be well treated, symbolizes her worth to the community, and provides a level of compensation to her natal family for the loss of her labour and company.

Bridewealth is often one part of a reciprocal exchange, in which case it is accompanied by the provision of a dowry—a payment presented by the bride’s family to that of the groom.

Bridewealth may consist of money or goods, and it may be paid in one sum or in installments over a period of time. The goods transferred may include a diverse array of items such as livestock, bolts of cloth, drink, food, traditional weapons (such as spears), and vehicles. When the exchange entails the provision of labour to the bride’s family, it is known as bride service.

The practice is common in all parts of the globe in one form or another but, as an instrument for the legitimation of a marriage, is most highly developed in Africa. In many traditional African societies the husband could not assume full rights to the sexual, economic, or procreative powers of his wife until a standard portion of the bridewealth had been transferred.

Of all the forms of economic transactions involved in marriage, bride price is the most common – 44% of societies with economic transactions during marriage.

  1. It is not payment for women, but rather is seen as a way of valuing the labor of women, the effort involved by the bride’s family in raising the female and the labor value of the woman’s offspring.
  2. It is more common in patrilineal and patrilocal systems. It is also common where land is abundant and the labor of women and children contributes to group welfare.

eg. Nandi tribe, Subanun of Philippines, Manus of Admiralty Islands.


  1. It is usually a substantial transfer of goods or money from the bride’s family to the bride, the groom, the groom’s kin or the couple.
  2. A woman’s dowry might include personal possessions such as clothing and jewels, money, servants or land.
  3. It was practiced in medieval Europe and is still prevalent in South Asia.


  1. The dowry is provided by the bride’s family to the bride, the groom or the couple.
  2. The payments to the bride originate from the groom’s family. Because the goods are first given to the bride’s father, who passes most of it and not all to her, this kind of transaction is called indirect dowry.
  3. eg. Basseri of Southern Iran.

BRIDE SERVICE – Requires the groom to work for the bride’s family, sometimes before the marriage, sometimes after. It varies in duration, from a few months to several years. eg. North Alaskan Eskimo

EXCHANGES OF FEMALES – A sister or female relative of the groom is exchanged for the bride. eg. Tiv of West Africa.

GIFT EXCHANGE – Involves the exchange of gifts about equal value by the two kin groups to be linked by marriage. eg. Andaman Islanders

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