By Maliha Ahmed
March 19th, 2019
It’s time to reform marriage and inheritance laws
According to a 2011 government survey, 65% of married women in Bangladesh suffered physical violence. If 65% of married women can suffer physical violence, we can only imagine the position women have when it comes to household bargaining power and control over resources.
From the economics of contracts, we know that each rational agent, when deciding on his actions, will also incorporate responses of other individuals involved to each of his possible actions before deciding on his best response.
In the context of marriages in Bangladesh, according to Dr Ambrus (a professor at Duke University specializing in game theory and development economics) under any interpretation, Islamic marriages grant men more rights over women in matters of marriage and divorce.
In countries like the US, alimony payments are still a substantial factor to consider when one enters into marriage, but in Bangladesh, where alimony payments are unheard of, proponents of Islamic law argue that the “Mehr” money should act as a sort of alimony.
However, the key characteristic of Mehr in Bangladesh compared to other Islamic countries is that it is almost universally and automatically specified to be only paid in the case of husband-initiated divorce, a lot like the standard prenuptial agreement. Hence, there is no effective costly threat of divorce initiated by the wife.
According to contract theory, we would see an increase in women’s household bargaining power and control over household resources if the wife also has access to an effective threat of exit from the contract which is costly for her spouse.
To add to that, the dowry system came to rise in Bangladesh in the 1950s, making it one of the few Muslim countries in which dowry is practiced. In most cases, dowry more than offsets Mehr, making it cost less for the groom to exit the marriage.
A groom is so precious in a Bengali family that the bride’s family in most cases will not even ask for enough Mehr such that it can help support their daughter in case a divorce takes place.
Putting together all these, in case of wife-initiated divorce, all costs in terms of social stigma is borne by wife without any Mehr payment and even for husband-initiated divorce there is no cost to the husband (as dowry more than offsets mehr) and no financial support for wife (as Mehr tends to be insignificant).
Hence, the system of Mehr no longer serves the purpose of upholding a woman’s position in a marriage contract and providing her with a security net.
What is the link between a credible threat of divorce, household bargaining power of women, and domestic abuse? In game theory, we need a credible effective threat even if the threat itself is never executed.
If the husband knows that his wife would be able to obtain financial support in the case of divorce, he would incorporate it into his behaviour. As a result, he would be less likely to engage in abusive behaviour and would give his wife greater household bargaining power, control over resources, and decision-making power.
Most women when they enter into marriage have imperfect information over how the marriage is going to be and the allocation of household bargaining power.
Usually, Bengali women are young when they are married off, often in their early 20s, and in most cases, they are restricted by their families in terms of freedom. Many parents will not support their daughter wanting to go abroad for her studies but will never object to their daughter in her early 20s wanting to get married.
They will spend lavishly on her wedding ceremonies and “gifts” to the in-laws but will not support the same daughter when she comes home to her parents crying that her husband abuses her.
Since “bujhano” by elders form an essential part of their duty regardless of what the daughter wants, they will try their level best to convince the daughter that she has no other choice but to stay in an abusive relationship, irrespective of how wealthy or able her parents are to support their daughter in case of a divorce.
Individuals usually consider the costs and benefits accruing to them due to their actions, even in a contract like marriage. Since the mehr system is not working effectively to serve its purpose as a contract enforcement tool, it is high time we reform our marriage laws more like the alimony arrangement in developed countries.
These provide sufficient financial assistance to women who are vulnerable and do not have the earning capability to sustain a lifestyle similar to what they had during their marriage.
Also, our inheritance laws which give daughters half the rights of sons serve to upload the superior position of men and weaker household bargaining power of women.
Women in the 21st century demand equal rights as men but our laws are a clear violation of equal rights.
Studies have consistently shown that greater bargaining power and resources in the hands of women have benefits not only for women themselves but also for their children, leading to increased expenditure on education, health, and consumption of children in the household.
Numerous studies have also found that presence of a credible threat of divorce by the wife (which results in a financial loss for husband) and gender-neutral inheritance laws substantially increases woman’s household bargaining power and control over household resources.
It is 2019, and it is high time we pull the correct levers and stop malpractices in the name of culture to restrain our women. Empowered women who take decisions themselves with knowledge and information help society and the nation to move forward.
Maliha Ahmed previously worked in research at BIDS and BIGD. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.