This is from the paper On the Timing of Marriage, Cattle, and Shocks [based on research in rural Zimbabwe], published in the latest issue of Economic Development and Cultural Change:
This paper focuses on the timing of marriage in rural areas in Zimbabwe and provides evidence suggesting that the timing of marriage responds to economic circumstances. As the transfer of bride wealth from (the family of) the groom to the family of the bride upon a daughter’s marriage presents an opportunity to acquire cattle, an unmarried daughter might be considered part of a household’s asset portfolio. In this view an unmarried daughter could be considered an asset that can be cashed in during times of adversity. The central question we address is whether marriage (through bride wealth payments) serves as an alternative financial insurance institution.
The estimation results show that the amount of rainfall has a positive but insignificant effect on the marriage rate. This is likely a marriage market effect due to the fact that after a period of low rainfall the supply of men is lower as few households are able to afford bride wealth. The results also indicate that the marriage rate for daughters from poor households is higher. In particular, after a negative shock to livestock wealth the marriage rate of daughters increases. The marriage rate for the oldest daughter in the household is also found to be higher, but its coefficient is not significant. These empirical results are consistent with the hypothesis that households use unmarried daughters as assets that can be cashed in during times of adversity.
Of course, there are many other implicit insurance mechanisms that house- holds use to deal with adverse shocks. However, from the empirical results that households use unmarried daughters to deal with adverse idiosyncratic shocks, one concludes that these other insurance mechanisms are insufficient to deal with all these shocks.
We considered the amount of bride wealth as well. Our estimation results provide additional evidence that the timing of marriage is used to avoid getting stuck in poverty. In particular, less wealthy households receive larger initial bride wealth payments when a daughter gets married. The accumulated amount of bride wealth they receive in the first years of marriage is relatively low so that the relatively high initial payment goes at the expense of subsequent payments. In other words, initial poverty can be avoided but only at the expense of lower payments in the subsequent years.
Becker's A Theory of Marriage (1974) is the classic article on the economics of marriage in the literature.