The aisle less travelled

2013-02-17 10:00

New stats reveal that fewer South Africans are getting married. Lucy Holborn and Thuthukani Ndebele ponder the reasons behind this trend.

The number of registered marriages in South Africa is declining.

While many put this down to changing attitudes, it may have something to do with economics as well.

In 2003, 195?000 marriages were registered in South Africa.

By 2011 the number had fallen to just over 170?000, a drop of 12%. This may not sound like a lot, but over the same period, the population ­increased by 12%.

Arguably, this is a global trend.

A recent article in The Economist focused on declining rates of ­marriage in the US, with 72% of the population in 1960 married or ­previously married – now down to just 51%.

The UN also reports that the proportion of people who have never married is rising.

Without much hard data to look at, reasons for this trend can only be speculative.

Changing social and cultural attitudes are sometimes said to be a key explanation of the trend, but that cannot be the whole story – for two reasons.

Firstly, surveys and opinion polls suggest that marriage is still an ­institution valued by many.

For ­instance, a 2006 Human Sciences Research Council study found that 87% of people support the idea of marriage to one partner for life. ­

Secondly, even if attitudes are changing, such changes are unlikely to happen without any other cause.

One of these causes could be ­urbanisation.

About two-thirds of South Africans now live in urban areas, up from half two decades ago.

When it might once have been frowned upon for young people to cohabit before marriage, in an ­urban setting they may be free to do this without the scrutiny of ­older generations of their family.

Equally, it may be easier in an ­urban rather than rural setting for people to have multiple partners without it being noticed by family or community members.

In other words, the business of having sexual relationships with unmarried partners has become easier, more commonplace and therefore more socially acceptable.

A second possible explanation for declining rates of marriage concerns the place of women in society.

Much lip service is paid to the issue of “female empowerment” – and in a month when stories of sexual violence have come to the fore, it may be incongruous to suggest that women in South Africa are increasingly well educated and economically independent.

However, the data suggest they are.

A higher number of girls than boys pass matric every year and female university graduates now outnumber male.

While still lower than those in male-headed households, incomes in ­female-headed households have been rising at a faster rate over the past 10 years.

Labour market participation rates of women have also been going up over the past few ­decades, and nearly 4?million women are in skilled or semiskilled ­employment.

In short, while women are still more likely to be poor than men (and therefore vulnerable in a number of ways), many more women than before are now economically independent.

In other words, they no longer depend on marriage for financial security.

In fact, with more than 2 million men unemployed (more than double the number 18 years ago), and a further 1?million who have given up looking for work, there are many men who would not be able to provide financial security for women anyway.

The imperative to marry in order to share assets and income for ­mutual benefit diminishes when there is not much to share.

A third possible explanation for declining rates of marriage could be the expense. Market research suggests that the average wedding in South Africa costs between R70?000 and R80?000.

While it is possible to get married at almost no cost, increasing urbanisation and access to various forms of ­media are probably accompanied by a growing awareness of expensive celebrity weddings – and with it the pressure to recreate a luxurious day to remember.

Other costs may also put people off marriage. Half of young Africans believe the expense of lobola payments puts people off getting married.

Should we be concerned that marriages are declining?

The ­decline seems to be something that goes hand in hand with ­development, urbanisation and ­female empowerment, so it is possibly a consequence of otherwise favourable trends.

Why is marriage supposed to be valuable anyway?

One major reason to believe marriage is worthwhile is that it benefits children.

Studies conducted in South Africa and elsewhere show that children born to married ­parents are more likely to grow up living with both their parents.

If marriage results in children being more likely to grow up with both parents, then that alone, regardless of other considerations, may make it a valuable institution.

The SA Institute of Race Relations has previously published ­research citing the benefits for children who grow up with both parents, among them better ­educational outcomes, higher self-esteem, and reduced chances of behavioural problems and risky sexual behaviour later in life.

So while the decline in the number of marriages may be a spin-off of development and increasing gender equality, its implications for family life and children are important enough for it to be a trend worth keeping an eye on.

»?Holborn is research manager at the SA ­Institute of Race Relations. Ndebele is a ­researcher at the institute

Customary marriages

Civil marriages


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