For Better and for Worse - How Unpaid Bride Wealth provides Security
The obligation to pay bride wealth at marriage is usually associated with thecontinuation of the lineage or considered a compensation for the loss of labor for the family that provides the bride. In this paper a different interpretation is advanced. The obligation to pay of bride wealth is seen as informal insurance which relies on the fact that bride wealth liabilities are contingent claims. Empirical evidence from Zimbabwe is presented to support this claim. In the absence of formal insurance mechanisms, bride wealth qualifies as an important security enhancing institution: the arrangement covers nearly the complete Zimbabwean adult population and permits to pool risks between many different families. Additionally the amounts involved are large and the period of time during which the claims provide security long. Like any informal insurance arrangement, the marriage system is prone to failure as a result of covariant risk and information and enforcement problems. It is shown how the marriage procedure deals with these problems.