2.3.11 Marriage and Family Patterns

Facts/messages: The issue of family relations merits attention for several reasons. In some countries, particularly in Latin America, there has been a tendency to create a false dichotomy between an individualized world view, supposedly held by UNFPA and other international agencies, and a native culture based on family values, as defended by the conservative forces opposed to the ICPD. It is important to correct the perception that UNFPA is somehow contrary to the family as an institution and the best way to go about this is to invest some time and effort in the analysis of actual issues related to the structure of families. Some of the issues relevant in this context are:

  • Nuclear versus extended family structures and the degree of cohabitation between generations;
  • Two-parent compared to one-parent households;
  • Polygamous family relationships;
  • Formal compared to consensual unions in traditional, as well as modern settings; and
  • Early marriage and/or large differences between the ages of spouses.

Although there is a general trend towards nuclear families, extended families are still an important part of the way of life in many parts of the world. In the 1990s, extended families still made up 19.5% of Egyptian households, 13% of South African households and 31% of the households in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There is a general tendency for richer households to be composed of nuclear families, but in 1999 as many as 28% of urban households of the richest quintile in Venezuela, 27% in Paraguay and 26% in Ecuador consisted of extended families. In some countries of Latin America, there has even been an increase in extended families in the past decade. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the persistence of extended family structures is reinforced by the AIDS epidemic, which often requires grandparents to take over the role of parents.

The process of demographic transition leads to smaller families (average number of family members), with a smaller burden of child-care obligations (fewer children at home) and a higher percentage of active members. Other components of this change of structure include the increase of the complexity and diversity of family structures as manifested by the increase in the number of single-person households, one-parent families, female headship, the increase in the number of separations and divorces, changes in the transition process toward marriage/unions, changes in the number of children who live only with their mother or father etc. On the other hand, there are also changes in the number of children older than 15 or 20 years old that continue to live with their parents, even after being married and having children of their own. There is a fair amount of literature showing that children from one-parent households are generally at a disadvantage compared to children from two-parent households. The latter would seem to confirm some of the positions of conservative groups advocating in favour of traditional family structures. It should be noted, however, that most of these studies do not control for pre-existing factors such as the fact that the incidence of one-parent households is higher among the poor.

Matrimonial relations and family formation patterns have important implications for the society, status of women, their health and fertility. In most societies, marriage usually marked the beginning of childbearing and procreation. Nonetheless, this pattern is changing. In many Western and Eastern European countries, the number of births outside marriage is increasing even if both parents live together and consider their union a family. The median age of marriage tends to go up, and in many European countries there is an increasing proportion of population that does not marry nor plans to have children. At the same time, in other parts of the world, early marriages are still common, especially for women, which exposes them to the risks of early childbearing and may hamper improvements in their educational attainment and economic and social status. Polygamy or more specifically, polygyny is still a common practice in much of Africa, the Middle East and Southern Asia. Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas shows that 588 out of the 1231 societies included had frequent and 453 occasional polygyny. It is legal in the entire Arab States region, with the exception of Tunisia, and in Southern and Western Asia, Myanmar, Singapore, and Indonesia. In Africa, it is either a recognized form of civil union or permitted by common law in most countries, although with some exceptions such as Angola, Benin, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, the DRC, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mauritius, and Rwanda. Even in the latter countries, the practice, although illegal, still exists. In some countries, such as Nigeria and India, the practice is only allowed among certain population groups. Incidence varies widely. In Lebanon, for instance, polygamous unions, while legal, are rare. In Senegal, on the other hand, it is estimated that as many as 47% of the unions are multiple.

Forced or arranged marriage of children or adolescents deprives them of freedom, opportunities for personal development, and rights such as health and well-being, education, and participation in civic life. Child marriage refers to both formal marriages and informal unions in which a girl lives with a partner as if married before the age of 18 years. Forced marriage happens without the free or valid consent of one or both of the partners. The concept of early marriage relates to forced marriage since minors are considered incapable of giving informed consent. Despite numerous legal instruments at international, national and local levels condemning the practice of forced marriage, only a limited number of countries criminalize this practice.

Despite a lack of widespread recognition in most countries, the increasing display of sexual orientation implies the emergence and recognition of same-sex couples, with or without children, representing a new form of family. Same-sex marriage has been a controversial debate with several regions and countries prohibiting the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, sometimes also barring any form of recognition. Since the issue of granting marriage to same-sex couples is controversial in many jurisdictions, many governments tend to opt for creating a civil union or unregistered cohabitation for same-sex couples. Same-sex marriage is currently carried out only in few countries in the world, for example, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, some U.S. states, as well as Mexico City, allowing equal economic benefits, legal rights and social status as families, however, in some countries still discriminating for parenthood. Other countries and regions grant same sex bonds without the provision of same-sex marriage, oftentimes however including most or all rights that marriage entail.

Demographic consequences of changing matrimonial arrangements until recently have been of minor importance as proximate determinants of fertility outcomes. These are still of lesser relevance in countries with high fertility where early and universal marriage for women reflects, and may contribute to their close identification with family roles. However, the massive changes that are currently taking place in Western societies, and a somewhat parallel change that is taking place in East and Southeast Asia, are, for good or ill, transforming the position of women by loosening the automatic assumption of this identification and hence their reproductive choices. Changes in marriage patterns affected by accelerated economic development, urbanization, human capital formation, changing gender roles and family arrangements correlate with increased sense of individualization, more economic opportunities, particularly for women, and new concepts of the purpose of marriage.

Social scientists studying various societies often reiterate that polygyny leads to the oppression, threatening or disempowerment of women. There is some evidence that children born out of polygamous unions are at greater risk of experiencing marital conflict, family violence and family disruptions, marital distress, particularly that related to high levels of unhappiness of women in polygamous unions, absence of the father and financial stress. Moreover, according to a 1992 recommendation by the UN Committee that monitors CEDAW, polygamous marriage contravenes a woman’s right to equality with men, and can have such serious emotional consequences for her and her dependants that such marriages ought to be discouraged and prohibited. Allowing such marriages violates the constitutional rights of women and breaches the provisions of Article 5(a) of the CEDAW.

Polygyny also tends to be associated with large average age differences between spouses, especially between husbands and their youngest spouses. However, large age differences between spouses also occur in settings that are essentially monogamous. The largest differences (around 10 years, on average) are found in the Sahel region of Africa, with slightly smaller averages in Western Africa (around 7 years) and Eastern and Southern Africa (around 6 years). It is generally believed that large age differences reinforce the inequality in power relations between men and women. In particular, it has been found that contraceptive prevalence rates are lower in unions with large age differences, as women in these unions have less autonomy in decision-making.

All too often, the imposition of a marriage partner upon a child or adolescent means that the child’s time of childhood is reduced and compromises his/her fundamental right to exercise that choice as established in international human rights instruments. Early marriage has a severe impact on the physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional well-being of children and adolescents. In addition, for girls this will almost certainly imply premature pregnancy and childbearing. Girls are also more susceptible to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, than mature women are, as a result of biological and social factors, including power relations between men and women that make it difficult for girls and young women to negotiate safe sex. One of the major factors behind early marriage is poverty. In countries with high levels of poverty, marrying young girls becomes often a family survival strategy, and may be considered as in the child’s interest. Forced marriage deprives girls, boys and women of basic human rights.

In some countries, particularly in East Asia, it is difficult for some men to find a spouse in their home country. Women are becoming more educated and economically active. However, relations between the sexes and the division of household responsibilities have hardly changed. Furthermore, measures to support economically active mothers are insufficient. Therefore, women are obliged to choose between work and marriage and motherhood, and increasing number of women are thus refusing to accept their traditional role. In addition, women often have to assume the role of caretakers for their parents, which also tends to remove them from the marriage market. As a response, an increasing number of brides are brought in from outside the country. In recent years, this form of immigration has developed rapidly, particularly in East Asian countries.

Methodology: Based on census data, calculate the percentage of nuclear and extended families and analyze the degree of cohabitation between generations. Also look at non-family living arrangements, such as single-person households. Compute the average number of members and children (less than 5 years old and less than 15 years old), headship rates by age and sex, distribution of the population by sex, age and marital status, percentage of children who live with both parents, only the father, only the mother, or neither of the two. Another important indicator refers to the situation of young and adolescent mothers by situation within the family: head of household, spouse, daughter of head of household or other situations. If at all possible, the trends in these indicators over time should be shown. Use nuptiality indicators as age of first union, the percentage of consensual unions and the difference in age between spouses (if this is available). Calculate the population distribution by age (in five-year age groups) and marital status, currently married women and men, ever married women or men, and fertility ratios. Correlate economic development with the age at marriage.

In countries where reliable civil registration data on marriages exist, these serve as a basis for the computation of a number of indicators such as the annual number of marriages, crude marriage rate, average age at marriage, average age difference between spouses at first marriage, annual numbers of divorces, and crude divorce rates. In some cases it may even be possible to compute the average duration of marriages. In other countries, that do not have reliable civil registration systems, the census or surveys of different kinds may provide retrospective information on the age at first marriage of women and more rarely of men. By analyzing this information for women aged 15-24, an approximate image of recent marriage patterns and ages at first marriage can be obtained. Note that this may require advanced statistical techniques (censored data analysis) in the case of women (or men) who are not yet married and not yet 25 years old. In countries where no retrospective marriage data exist, it may still be possible to compute the so-called singulate mean age at marriage, i.e. the mean age at marriage computed based on proportions of never married individuals at different ages. This works best if data are available by single ages, but care needs to be taken with distortions in the age structure due to digit preference.

The censuses of several countries (e.g. Egypt, Iraq, Guinea, Kenya, Mali, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Uganda, Nepal) allow the measurement of the extent of polygamous unions. In practice, however, these data are often heavily under-reported. Women in particular often do not acknowledge that they life in such unions, either because they resist the idea or because they are unaware of their husbands’ other partners.

Assessing the extent of early marriage prevalence is very challenging since many go unregistered and unofficial and therefore are not counted in standard data collection systems. Very little data exist on marriages under age 15. Furthermore, early marriage is often concentrated in some regions and among some sub-populations. Plenty of marriage data exist for those aged 15-19, mostly in relation to reproduction or schooling. DHS data allow for some analysis of the proportion of women currently married who married below age 18. Existing demographic data need to be disaggregated and used to examine the prevalence of early marriage. However, further studies are needed to examine trends.

UNICEF and partners base their analysis on household survey data primarily from the DHS and the MICS. This analysis focuses on five indicators related to child marriage, including i) Percentage of women first married/in union by age 18 by age group; ii) Percentage of girls 15-19 years of age currently married/in union; iii) Age difference between spouses; iv) Percentage of women in a polygynous union by age groups; and v) Percentage of ever-married women who were directly involved in the choice of their first husband or partner.

Primary Sources:

  • Civil registration data on marriages, where these exist;
  • Household surveys and censuses. In some cases it may be necessary to ask for special tabulations from the Central Statistical Offices (CSOs);
  • Contraceptive Prevalence Survey (CPS);
  • DHS;
  • MICS;
  • National Censuses;
  • National Legislation;
  • World Fertility Survey;
  • National surveys on traditional practices.

Secondary Sources:

57  Bruce K. Caldwell (2005).”Factors affecting female age at marriage in South Asia”. Asian Population Studies 1(3): 283 – 301.
58  For more details see the data base available at http://eclectic.ss.uci.edu/~drwhite/worldcul/atlas.htm.
59  Bélanger, Danièle (2010). “Marriages with foreign women in East Asia: bride trafficking or voluntary migration?” Population and Societies No. 469.
60  Indicators from the UN Population Division.
61  For more details, see John Hajnal (1953). “Age at marriage and proportions marrying”. Population Studies 11 (2): 111-136.