Lesson from Bali: India needs more love marriages

Letting youngsters decide who they want to marry might have an unexpected benefit for the economy.
I am currently holidaying in Bali. Many readers will know that 90% of Bali’s population is Hindu in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim. I see women working everywhere in restaurants, shops, filling stations, and even taxis. My driver says — and data sources confirm — that the female workforce participation rate is 53%. There is a caste system but no rigidity. The best proof of this, he says, is that three-quarters of all marriages are love marriages, not infrequently across castes.
Is there a link between love marriages and women working? In India, also a Hindu country, female workforce participation for those above 15 years is about 37% according to government data. In urban areas, it is barely 26%.
To combat this, expert committees and seminarists galore have suggested incentives and laws to empower women. Many states have responded with grants for shagun, mangalsutras, free bicycles for girls, marriage grants for the poor and lower castes, government fixed deposits for every girl born, and so on. NGOs have campaigned for equality in wages and employment, and many states have banned such discrimination. None of this has improved female work participation.
I now hear experts talking of creating jobs suited to women. But countries across the world, including Asian countries with similar cultural norms, have created huge female employment just by expanding incomes and job opportunities, not through “women-suited” jobs.

I suspect experts mistake discrimination against all youngsters — boys and girls — for discrimination against girls alone. No doubt girls are disempowered most. But boys are not empowered either by social norms. Their parents make the critical decisions about their work and marriage. Only the most courageous boys dare attempt love marriages.
So, the problem is more than the tyranny of males. It is the tyranny of parents, entrenched by culture. The same culture discourages females working.
Within India, the most love marriages take place in Kerala and the north-eastern states. This could be due to a higher proportion of Christians and tribals without caste limitations. Yet the largest survey in India suggests that only 3% of marriages are love marriages, 93% are arranged, and 4% are “semi-arranged”. Semi-arranged marriages are not based on love, although the youngsters have more say in them.
Less than 5% of marriages are across castes. Youngsters marrying across castes have often been burned alive by their parents with the full approval of village elders to “save the honour” of the family and village. Honour killings represent the tyranny of the old over the young.
Unexpectedly, modernisation through urbanisation has decreased, not increased female employment. Urbanisation represents the future, and that in India seems to imply an ever-shrinking proportion of females working. To some extent this is due to girls staying longer in education, a good thing. But female participation is falling at all ages, not just student ages.
The world over, a ‘demographic dividend’ was reaped when women stopped working at home and started working for wages. The global rate of female participation in many rich countries is 60%. It is rising even in Middle Eastern countries. But India remains a laggard.

I have attended seminars galore where speakers explain this as arising from discrimination from birth against girls; female infanticide and foeticide; discrimination in feeding and healthcare; discrimination in education; and fear of rape and molestation. But all this was once true of Asian countries like China too. I was recently told by a Hong Kong professor that arranged marriages in China, once universal, have virtually disappeared. Girls and boys take their own decisions. This is empowerment of the young. China has it and India does not.
Nobody in India speaks of this publicly — people think it rude to blame elders for poor cultural norms. Yet this helps explain why love marriages and female work are so much more common in all other ‘miracle economies’.
Changing cultural norms is a very tough task. I have no silver bullet to offer. But let me relate a conversation with young boys in a rural area in UP at election time. Many had cellphones, and I asked what they used cellphones for most. One boy giggled and said, “We use them to talk to our girl friends.” He explained that normally girls and boys could not meet or talk socially outside school, but cellphones had now made this possible.
Wow! The mobile phone is breaking taboos that no number of expert recommendations can overcome. Might cellphones eventually break the power of parents over the choices of youngsters and create a new set of norms in which love marriages and females at work become part of a new Indian culture? Call me mad, say it will take a long time, but I am an optimist.
This article was originally published by The Times of India on December 23, 2023.

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