Does Brideprice Cause Conflicts

  • Melissa Johnston

Press/Media: Blogs, Podcasts and Social MediaBlogs


Is it possible that scholars have overlooked a decisive factor – brideprice – when looking at the drivers of violent conflict? Greed, grievances, poverty and group identity have all been investigated as factors contributing to conflict, but we have yet to consider brideprice.


Brideprice is the transfer of money and goods from the groom’s male relatives to the bride’s male relatives. It is a considerable economic factor in the lives of many people.  Brideprices are expensive the world over, averaging four times the per capita income (as Siwan Anderson has shown). Brideprice involves the transmission of significant volumes of property and labour, changing the distribution of wealth across society. In the case of Timor-Leste, brideprice varies between around US$3,000 and $90,000. Compare this with the average annual income in rural Timor-Leste of around $400 per year. With these volumes, it is unsurprising that brideprice causes conflicts, disputes, debts and violence against women. Yet scholars have overlooked brideprice’s national and international ramifications.


One likely reason that brideprice has been overlooked as a causal factor in conflicts is because researchers pigeonhole brideprice as part of softer, feminine domains of gender and culture, rather than part of the harder, masculine areas of politics and economics. Adding to this neglect, commentators sometimes fail to distinguish between brideprice and dowry. Brideprice is the transfer of goods and cash from the groom’s male relatives (a patrilineal family) to the bride’s male relatives. It is different from dowry, which moves from the bride’s family to the groom’s family. In both cases, women almost never control the money that circulates for them.

Generally, there seemed be an assumption that as globalisation has homogenised the world, brideprice would diminish just as dowry did in Western Europe. But this has not happened. Thanks to the WomanStats project, we can see exactly how widespread brideprice is currently (indicated in orange):

Using this data, Hudson and Matfess argue that brideprice is hiding in “plain sight” as a decisive factor driving violent conflict. In their view, high brideprices fuelled greivance, which in turn fuelled violence.


My research on Timor-Leste supports this proposition that brideprice is a long-overlooked and important factor driving grievances and violent conflicts. The amount of brideprice varies with social status, and brides from higher status families command higher prices. Thus, brideprice is a way patrilineal families: (1) accumulate wealth and (2) cement and display their higher social status.


How brideprice works in Timor-Leste


Exchanges of brideprice for women means that higher-ranked lineages can extract more wealth from lower-ranked lineages: higher-ranked men systematically marry off their daughters to lower-ranked men and charge significantly higher brideprices. As a result, higher-ranked men accumulate money through brideprice from lower-ranked men.


Kinship networks are not relations of equals; rather, they are relations between ranked patrilineal families that together form a recognisable social class. These sharp divides between high ranks and low ranks using brideprice means brideprice is part of class relations, with high ranks and low ranks constituting separate classes.


The role of brideprice in creating and reproducing class is not well recognised. There are a few reasons for this. One reason is that the focus of participants is usually on the characteristics of a bride that make her “worth more” money. When seen from this view, people concentrate on the bride’s value as a worker, bearer of children, her education level or even her cooking skills! (Here you can see an example on the Nigerian brideprice app).


However, a feminist political economy analysis highlights the role of brideprice in creating and cementing social hierarchy between groups, which in turn can better explain the uneven distribution of power and resources across societies. Hudson and her colleagues are right to point out brideprice’s role in driving wealth distribution, grievance and conflict. However, the unequal distribution of resources between groups, not just individuals, can drive grievances. A sharply hierarchical society with ranked groups leads to grievances. Young men cannot easily afford to marry at an individual level, but low-ranked men as a group are further exploited by having to pay higher prices to higher-ranked men to marry. The economic disenfranchisement of whole groups of low-ranked young men and their families drives grievances and social conflict - frequently violent -  as different classes struggle for control over power and resources.


Timor-Leste is an example of how social conflict is tied up in brideprice, where elites are reluctant to bow to women activists’ demands to reform brideprice, despite its harmful effects on women’s rights and the role of brideprice' role in fuelling violence against women. Brideprice has been a means of wealth accumulation for Timorese elites, where brides marry down (hypogamously) and buffalo and cash move up into the hands of high-ranked men. Political elites from both sides of politics have been reluctant to reform or ban brideprice because for many of them, brideprice demarcates their own status. More crucially, making concessions to rural power holders who rely on brideprice for status and wealth, allows a Dili-based elite to build a coalition across the urban-rural divide.


For those young men outside the dominant classes, excluded from marriage by inflated brideprice payments, being part of a violent extremist group, a militia or martial arts gang offers opportunities. Not just for employment, livelihoods or market share, as scholars have acknowledged, but also for marriage or sexual access. The political economy context of, for example, armed groups paying brideprice, or providing wives to combatants who would otherwise be excluded, or of using sexual violence as a form of compensation to soldiers, needs to be better understood. These highly gendered factors are part of the struggle by different groups over power and resources, which drives grievances and violent conflict.


Melissa Johnston is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre.

Period8 Mar 2018

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