THE DECLINE OF MARRIAGE

There has been a decline in the proportion of women who are married in almost all countries in recent decades. According to the United Nations, a smaller proportion of women of reproductive age (15 to 49 years) is married than at any other time in recorded history – 64% compared to 69% in 1970. By 2030, just 60% of women of working age will be married. This shift is significant as marriage has been the foundation of family formation almost everywhere in the world. It is also an opportunity as the downward pressure on marriage as the only path to economic security for girls is in response to women’s rising educational achievements and pursuit of more highly skilled and paid jobs – a trend that will continue across all regions of the world. For example, by 2030 the world will have an estimated 2 billion women of working age, almost half of whom will not be married. As fertility rates fall to historic lows over the same period (2.3 children by 2030), these women will represent a powerful force for human development.

Although the prevalence of marriage has declined in most developed and developing countries, it is still very high across many Asian countries with China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Viet Nam all experiencing rising rates in recent decades.  In some of these countries marriage growth may actually be a response to rising economic growth as couples are in better financial positions to pursue marriage. But this may be a short term effect that will be overtaken as women’s rising education and labor market performance start to exert pressure on marriage.  Second, declining marriage rates do not necessarily mean that birth rates fall, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where several countries are experiencing lower marriage rates but continued high fertility, even for adolescents. This is concerning as the ultimate aim of delaying marriage is to delay childbirth. In countries where marriage is no longer the gateway to childbirth, strategies will need to target delaying childbirth directly.

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EARLY FAMILY FORMATION AS DEVELOPMENT THREAT

In the countries where marriage is a threat to women and girl’s health, education, and labor market opportunities, and a trigger for early childbirth, declining rates of marriage will further accelerate development. Nowhere is this more important than in the countries where child marriage is widely practiced, where girls’ secondary school completion rates are low, and where adolescent births and deaths in pregnancy and childbirth are high. Delaying marriage can also reduce death and disability from the potentially harmful practices associated with it, including female-genital cutting, dowry, honor killings, intimate partner violence, polygyny and patrilocality, whereby a bride relocates to live with her husband’s extended family. Delaying first marriage and childbirth, and providing alternative pathways for girls to achieve economic security can be an even more powerful force for progress in the countries struggling with high and persistent rates of child marriage.

Asia is host to the vast majority of the world’s 720 million child brides, including 250 million who were married before they turned 15.  UNICEF reports that India, Bangladesh and Nepal account for almost 70% of women who were married before they turned 18. Further, each year an estimated 14 million girls under the age of 18 are married, the vast majority from India (5 million), Bangladesh (1 million) and Nigeria (500,000), although Brazil (400,000), Ethiopia (300,000), Pakistan (300,000), Indonesia (200,000), the Democratic Republic of Congo (140,000), Mexico (140,000) and Niger (140,000) also contribute significantly.  Sub-Saharan Africa is host to many of the countries with the highest rates of child marriage. For example, more than 6 out of every 10 girls in Niger, Chad, Mali and the Central African Republic are married before they turn 18.

Not surprisingly, most of the countries with high numbers and high rates of child marriage also struggle with very low secondary school attendance for girls, high rates of adolescent births, maternal and newborn deaths, and intimate partner violence. Most of the high child marriage countries in sub-Saharan Africa also struggle with very high rates of female genital cutting, considered a prerequisite for marriage, and polygyny, while dowry and patrilocality plague the high child marriage Asian countries. All of these practices cause significant pain and suffering, and even death, for young girls. It is in these Asian and African countries that delaying family formation can contribute significantly to the achievement of national health, education and labor market goals.

DELAYING FAMILY FORMATION: A NEW DEVELOPMENT GOAL

To reap the health, education and labor market benefits of delaying marriage and childbirth, all countries should set a new development goal of increasing the ages of first marriage and childbirth among women to 25 by 2020 and to 30 among men and women by 2030. Countries that have already achieved the first goals should move immediately to the second targets.  The subset of countries struggling with high rates of child marriage and its associated ills should prioritize these goals in the context of their overall national development objectives. In those countries where marriage is declining but age at first childbirth is not, including many in sub-Saharan Africa and several developed countries (e.g. USA), strategies should target delaying first childbirth.

Strategies to achieve these goals should include incentives to keep girls at school, female-friendly jobs growth, increased access to modern contraception, and enactment of legislation outlawing child marriage and the harmful marriage-related practices that are relevant in each country context.  In Asian countries changing attitudes towards dowry and patrilocality will be important while in sub-Saharan Africa changing attitudes towards female genital cutting and polygyny will reduce some of the risks associated with marriage for women and girls, and may reduce the demand for early marriage. As simply outlawing these practices has had little impact in many countries, incentives, including cash and non-cash, for compliance should be explored. In both regions, reducing the tragically high rates of intimate partner violence which occur most often in marriage will be critical and legislation outlawing rape and violence within marriage with harsh penalties for perpetrators as well as programs to change attitudes about violence within marriage should enable countries to make progress. Strategies which integrate these approaches are likely to be more successful. The International Center for Research on Women assessed the “Our Daughter, Our Wealth” program in the Indian State of Haryana and  concluded that cash payments to families who kept their daughters in school wasn’t enough to delay early marriage significantly, and that conditional cash transfers also need to address the attitudes and aspirations of community members and elders.

Countries should also undertake reviews of laws and policies that discriminate against married women and which provide incentives for marriage (e.g. tax, wage and social security benefits), as these can have the perverse effect of encouraging family arrangements that harm women. Human Rights Watch found that discriminatory marriage laws contributed to female poverty in Bangladesh and the WomenStats Project maps the large number of countries where family laws still discriminate against married women. Countries should regularly measure rates of child marriage, rates of adolescent birth, age at first marriage and age at first childbirth, including by income quintile. All efforts to delay family formation and eliminate early marriage and childbirth should prioritize the needs of women and girls from the lowest income households as they currently face the greatest risks from early family formation.

Over the long term, countries should encourage the formation of new family structures that maximize the wellbeing of all members, and especially of women, as they continue to pay enormous economic, social and political costs as a result of marriage. In developed countries, marriage and motherhood force many women to disengage to various degrees from the paid workforce forgoing income and influence, while in too many developing countries early marriage is the gateway to a life of oppression, multiple pregnancies, ill health, violence and even death.  The social and economic costs to women, to communities and to entire nations of early family formation and the lifetime disempowerment and separation of women from public life are immeasurable.

A NEW GLOBAL CONVERSATION ABOUT FAMILY FORMATION

The United Nations, its agencies and development partners should expand the current focus on ending child marriage and its related ills through campaigns like Girls Not Brides and Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, and initiate a new movement to delay the age of family formation, with a special focus on the countries where more than 30% of girls are married before the age of 18.  The UN should reinforce the view that in the 21st century education is a far superior path to economic security for girls than marriage. Further, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN should encourage a global conversation about the creation of new family structures that offer all members equal opportunities to reach their full potentials and develop their full capabilities. The UN should recognize that women everywhere need more choices when it comes to establishing a family – choices that are fully compatible with female educational attainment, economic independence and public influence.

The global trend towards fewer marriages is gathering pace everywhere and soon, in several high income countries, a majority of women of working age will not be married but instead will be living independently or cohabiting without marriage. Increasingly women of workforce age with children, whether married or not, will demand family structures that can accommodate their desire for an equitable distribution of family labor, including multi-parent families where child rearing is shared across several cohabiting or co-located families, shared families where parents live separately but share responsibility for child raising, and supported group living for sole parent families. The UN should build on initiatives like the World Family Map to monitor the growth of these new family types and to measure their impact on development goals.   

A final note.  Above all the UN should promote the view that as our most fundamental institution and the most basic unit of organization within all human societies, the family must function according to the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, respecting equally the rights and freedoms of each member and distributing costs, benefits and opportunities equitably among members.   Family types that involve force or coercion, or that require one member to be harmed as a condition of family formation, or that systematically deny members the freedom to protect and pursue their own economic, social and political wellbeing are a threat to development.