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Formation and dissolution of unions

Modified on 2013/05/16 15:08 by Haoyi Chen Paths: Read in Order Categorized as Chapter 2 - Population, households and families
From gender issues to gender statistics on formation and dissolution of unions: illustrative examples

Policy-relevant questions Data needed Sources of data
Are girls entering marriage or informal unions before age 18 or the national minimum legal age at marriage? Age at first marriage or union by sex



Marital status by sex and age
Household surveys
Population censuses
Civil registration system

Household surveys
Population censuses
Do men remarry more often than women? Marriages by sex and rank of marriage


Marital status by sex and rank of marriage
Civil registration system
Household surveys

Household surveys
Are polygynous unions prevalent? What is the proportion of women and men involved in this type of union and what is the age gap between husbands and wives? Detailed marital status by sex and age
Age of partners in polygynous unions by sex
Household surveys
Are women more likely than men to be among the divorced and separated? Marital status by sex and age Population censuses
Household surveys
Population registers
Is widowhood more common for women than for men? Is early widowhood prevalent for women? Marital status by sex and age Population censuses
Household surveys
Population registers

  • + Gender issues
    • Early marriage has declined in all regions of the world, yet many brides are at the age of childhood or adolescence (United Nations, 2010a; 2011a; UNICEF, 2011). Particularly in the less developed regions, girls’ marriage occurs at young ages, increasing their health risks and preventing them from remaining in school and acquiring skills necessary for the labour market. Most countries have established minimum ages of marriage for both women and men, however, exceptions are generally granted with parental approval, and the laws are not necessarily enforced (United Nations, 2011e; 2011g). Marriage among very young men is rare in most societies (UNICEF, 2011; United Nations 2011f).

      Women tend to marry earlier than men, although the age gap between husbands and wives has narrowed (United Nations, 2010a). In countries with limited educational and formal employment opportunities and lower status of women, women continue to marry early and the gap between the mean age at marriage of women and men tends to be wider (United Nations, 2011f). Many women who marry older men at a young age have little autonomy and may, as a result, be at disadvantage in family decision-making, especially on issues concerning their reproductive behaviour (United Nations, 2000b). Traditionally, a precondition of marriage for men had been to be able to support their families economically. By comparison, women’s status had been primarily defined in connection with their family and childbearing roles. More years of schooling and better career opportunities for women as well as changes in the gender roles and expectations have contributed to the decline of the age gap at marriage between husbands and wives (United Nations, 2000a; 2000b). Age at marriage has been rising for both women and men, reflecting not only changes in education and career opportunities, but also an increase in the number of young couples cohabiting without marrying (United Nations, 2011g).

      Women in informal unions may be disadvantaged relative to women in legal marriages with respect to financial commitments and property division in cases of separation (United Nations, 2000b). In both developed and developing countries, consensual and cohabiting unions are becoming more frequent, especially for younger generations (United Nations, 2011g). Polygyny, a type of informal union where a man is taking more than one wife, is still common in some countries from Africa and Southern and Western Asia (United Nations, 2011g). Because of a wider age gap between husbands and wives, women in polygynous unions have a higher risk of becoming widows and experiencing economic and social difficulties associated with the widowhood status (United Nations, 2000b).

      Both prevalence of informal unions and the disadvantage of women involved in them depend on the context. For example, in countries where women have a lower status in general, less-educated women from rural areas may be more likely to be in informal unions and more likely to be at risk of poverty when the unions dissolve (United Nations, 2000b). In countries where women enjoy economic autonomy, however, women in pre-marital cohabitation unions may be from all social groups, and they may be less vulnerable when the unions dissolve. Overall, divorces and separations are becoming more frequent and more women than men are separated or divorced. In countries where divorce laws were liberalized more recently or where social attitudes have become less restrictive, divorce tends to be on the rise. However, in countries where divorce has been socially acceptable and where traditionally rates have been high, rates of divorce are stable or even declining. The proportion of divorced or separated women has increased, bringing up the number of lone mothers with children. The proportion of men divorced or separated is lower than of women, as men are more likely to remarry than women. (United Nations, 2009a)

      Widowhood is more common among women than among men (United Nations, 2009a). Women tend to marry men who are older than themselves and are less likely than men to remarry after their spouse died. In developed countries, widowhood is experienced primarily by older women, while in developing countries it also affects younger women, many of whom are still rearing children (United Nations, 2000b; 2009a). Adjusting to widowhood can be difficult in all societies but more so in developing countries with gender discrimination in inheritance rights (United Nations, 2001). In those countries, household property may be taken away from the widow and assigned to male relatives, while the widows may suffer abuse and exploitation at the hands of family members (United Nations, 2001).

  • + Data needed
    • First marriages by age and sex

      Marriages by age and sex and previous marital status of spouses

      Divorces by age and sex and duration of marriage

      Marital status by sex and age

      Additional breakdowns should be considered, such as urban/rural areas and geographic areas. When household surveys or population censuses are the source of data, more breakdown variables can be used, including ethnicity, migration status and wealth status of the household. In addition, educational attainment is an important variable for explaining age at first marriage, while household type, wealth status of the household and number of dependent children are important variables for understanding living arrangements and living conditions of women and men who are not living with their spouses anymore (divorced, separated, or widowed). In countries where widows are discriminated by customary laws with respect to their inheritance rights, property ownership and control over property should also be considered among the variables of interest.


  • + Sources of data
    • Civil registration systems can provide data on marriages, by age and previous marital status of spouses, rank of marriage and other characteristics. They can also provide data on divorces, by age of spouses, length of marriage, number of dependent children and other characteristics.

      Population registers can provide data on composition of population by marital status, sex and age.

      Population censuses collect data on marital status by age and sex, usually defined in relation to the marriage laws or customs of the countries. Some censuses also collect data on duration of current marriage.

      Household surveys routinely collect data on marital status. Some household surveys, especially family and fertility surveys and demographic and health surveys, may collect data on marital status in more detail, capturing not only marital status as defined by the marriage laws or customs of a country, but also various forms of informal unions such as consensual unions, cohabiting unions, or polygynous unions.

      Demographic and health surveys and family and fertility surveys also collect data on age at first marriage/union, and duration of first marriage/union. Sometimes, data with regard to partnership history of individuals including all marriages and consensual unions may be also collected, such as in the Fertility and Family Surveys in Europe.


  • + Conceptual and measurement issues
    • Information on informal unions, either as union status or as age at entering the unions may not be adequately covered in statistics. The marital status of an individual is usually recorded in relation to the marriage laws or customs of the country. As a result, informal unions are often not recorded as separate categories in the classification of marital status used in censuses or household surveys either. Instead, people in informal unions may be recorded either as single or as married. For example, in the case of polygynous unions, the man and the first wife may be legally married and therefore they are recorded as married, while the second and other wives, who are in consensual or visiting unions, may be recorded as single. As a result, an account of women living in informal unions, with their particular socio-economic implications, may be missing from the official statistics. It is important that in countries where informal unions are common, the classification of marital status used in household surveys and censuses include distinct categories for informal unions.

      Similarly, entry into informal unions such as consensual unions, cohabiting unions or polygynous unions, is not usually recorded in the civil registration system. Therefore, it is important that information on age at entry into informal unions is collected in addition to the information on age at formal marriage through household surveys.


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