Social Identity

The impact of religious violence and social conflict on women’s age of marriage

  • Blog Post Date 22 March, 2023
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Sisir Debnath

Indian Institute of Technology Delhi

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Sourabh Paul

Indian Institute of Technology Delhi

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Asad Tariq

Indian Insitute of Technology Delhi

In the ninth post of I4I’s month-long campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2023, Debnath et al. explore the effects of Hindu-Muslim riots on decisions around women's marriage. They find that the incidence of religious violence lowers the age of marriage for women– likely motivated by the desire to marry girls off early to reduce their vulnerability to sexual violence. They find that early marriage also impacts women’s educational attainment, and their age at which they have children.

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Conflicts originating within or outside the household often adversely affect women. Violence against women perpetrated by intimate partners or other family members has received substantial attention in the literature. However, the differential effects of social conflicts on women are relatively understudied. Notable exceptions are Lu et al. (2021) who find that displaced adolescent women during the time of the partition of Punjab were married off at an earlier age; Menon and Bhasin (1993) also document the abduction and violence against women during the partition in 1947; and Saikia (2011) documents rape and other forms of violence used against women during the events that led to the partition of Bangladesh. In Myanmar, human rights violations stemming from oppression and anti-Muslim violence have led to human trafficking, forced labour, and social injustice, disproportionately affecting Muslim women and children (Abdelkader 2014). We explore the effects of religious conflicts in India, particularly the effect of Hindu-Muslim riots, on the marital decisions of women.

Motivation and methodology

Religious riots often flare up due to local conflicts of interest and unfortunately, are not rare events. They are violent in nature and are likely to cause economic disruption (Mitra and Ray 2014). In addition to the economic losses, they may erode the social trust and perceived security in the affected areas in the absence of law-and-order mechanisms. Communities at the receiving end may feel less secure and more vulnerable to various forms of violence. Concerns about security may restrict women's freedoms, differentially affecting their human capital and marital decisions. There are anecdotal accounts of women dropping out of school due to the Rath Yatra riots in Baroda (Mehta and Shah 1992), and reports of sexual violence being used as a tool of humiliation against minority women during the Gujarat riots of 2002 (Engineer 2002). Using state-level data on crimes against women between 1991-2000, we also find a strong positive correlation between molestation and sexual harassment and the incidence of riots. 

Therefore, in the event of religious violence, even if the families are not direct victims of violence, there is a sense of apprehension and a psychological imperative to protect their kin, particularly daughters. In South Asia and other patriarchal societies, protecting daughters and other female kin from sexual violence is almost synonymous to upholding the family’s honour. Where the responsibility of daughters’ safety and well-being tends to rest with her parents, there may be a greater motivation to marry off girls in conflict-prone areas early to reduce their vulnerability.

We estimate the causal effects of Hindu-Muslim riots on age at marriage for women, in 16 large Indian states during 1980-2000. We combine the data on riots from the extended Varshney-Wilkinson dataset (Varshney and Wilkinson 2006, Iyer and Shrivastava 2018) and five rounds of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) to explore the relationship. We divide women into marriage cohorts (that is, the year in which they got married) across the years 1980 to 2000. Besides age of marriage, we also investigate the effect on education and fertility outcomes to identify the long-term and intergenerational impact of riots.

Impact of riots on age of marriage

The main challenge of identifying the causal relationship between riots and age at marriage lies in the obvious correlation between the incidence of riots and the general law and order situation, which may affect the prevalence of other crimes. Riots could also be correlated with income levels (Mitra and Ray 2014), which also affect marriage decisions. Therefore, we use an instrumental variable approach1 (similar to Iyer and Shrivastava (2018), to identify the causal impact of Hindu-Muslim riots on women’s age of marriage. We instrument riots with the concurrence of a major state Hindu festival on a Friday. Friday is a religious day for Muslims, and if a Hindu festival coincides with it, there might be a contest for public spaces, leading to tensions between the two groups. We find a significant positive correlation between riots and the coincidence of major Hindu festivals on a Friday. The coincidence increases the probability of a riot in a state by 16.8%.

We find significant and adverse effects of riots on age at marriage. Preliminary state-level analysis suggests that the incidence of a riot in a state, in the year before the year of marriage, lowers the age at marriage by 1.3 years for women. Each additional riot lowers the age at marriage by an additional 0.125 years. The incidence of a riot also increases the probability of marriage before 18 years of age by 13.4%.

Effects on education and child mortality

When girls are married off at an earlier age, there is a possibility that their education will also be adversely affected. We do find that riots adversely affect women’s years of education, through the channel of early marriage – the incidence of a riot decreases the years of education by 1.7 years for women. Since assortative matching happens in the marriage market, this acts as a mechanism to decrease the ‘groom’s quality’, since relatively less-educated brides are matched with less-educated grooms.

Since women are typically married off at an early age, it results in early pregnancies and younger mothers. We do find empirical evidence for early marriage and its intergenerational consequences on child mortality. Our provisional results suggests that the incidence of a riot increases the mortality of the firstborn child by more than 2%. Though we are unable to empirically identify the exact mechanism through which riots affect child mortality, early pregnancy and post-traumatic stress disorder during pregnancy could be potential channels.

Conclusion and policy implications

We empirically establish the negative impact of riots on age of marriage. In addition, we also investigate the effects of this negative influence on other outcomes, such as child marriage, early pregnancies, and child mortality through the channel of early marriage. We find that the occurrence of riots in a state in the year preceding marriage is associated with an increased likelihood of marriage before the age of 18 years, which in turn leads to younger mothers and a smaller likelihood of survival for their offspring.

However, our findings represent the outcomes for all the women recorded in the NFHS, regardless of the community to which they belong. We are yet to verify if riots disproportionately affect Muslim or Hindu women along with other heterogeneity tests. Nevertheless, the negative effects of riots on women and their infants underscore the need for appropriate policy measures that aid in rehabilitation, income, security, and health care in communities affected by riots.


  1. An instrumental variable is used in empirical analysis to address endogeneity concerns. An instrument is correlated with the explanatory factor but does not directly affect the outcome of interest, and thus can be used to measure the true causal relationship between the explanatory factor and the outcome of interest – in this case, the only mechanism through which the instrument can affect the age at marriage is through the occurrence of a riot. 

Further Reading

  • Abdelkader, Engy (2014), “Myanmar’s Democracy Struggle: The Impact of Communal Violence Upon Rohingya Women and Youth”, Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal Association, 23(3): 511-542. Available here.
  • Engineer, Asghar Ali (2002), “Gujarat Riots in the Light of the History of Communal Violence”, Economic and Political Weekly, 37(50): 5047-5054.
  • Iyer, Sriya and Anand Shrivastava (2018), “Religious riots and electoral politics in India”, Journal of Development Economics, 131: 104-122.
  • Lu, Frances, Sameem Siddiqui and Prashant Bharadwaj (2021), “Marriage outcomes of displaced women”, Journal of Development Economics, 152.
  • Mehta, Bhavna and Trupti Shah (1992), “Gender and communal riots”, Economic and Political Weekly, 27(47): 2522-2524.
  • Menon, Ritu and Kamla Bhasin (1993), “Recovery, Rupture, Resistance: Indian State and Abduction of Women During Partition”, Economic and Political Weekly, 28(17): WS2-WS11.
  • Mitra, Anirban and Debraj Ray (2014), “Implications of an Economic Theory of Conflict: Hindu-Muslim Violence in India”, Journal of Political Economy, 122(4): 719-765.
  • Saikia, Y (2011), Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh, Duke University Press.
  • Varshney, A and S Wilkinson (2006), ‘Varshney-Wilkinson Dataset on Hindu-Muslim Violence in India, 1950-1995, Version 2’, Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR 4342).
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