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Formation and dissolution of unions

Modified on 2015/05/08 15:26 by Sean Zheng Paths: Read in Order Categorized as Chapter 2 - Population, households and families
Table II.23

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 the age of 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 systems.

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 systems.
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 divorced 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; United Nations, Economic and Social Council 2011; 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 the 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 laws are not necessarily enforced (United Nations, 2011d, 2011f). Marriage among very young men is rare in most societies (UNICEF, 2011; United Nations, 2011e).

      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 where women have a lower status, women continue to marry early and the gap between the mean age at marriage of women and that of men tends to be wider than in other countries (United Nations, 2011e). Many women who marry older men at a young age have little autonomy and may, as a result, be at a disadvantage in family decision-making, especially on issues concerning their reproductive behaviour (United Nations, 2000). Traditionally, a precondition of marriage for men was that they must be able to support their families economically. By comparison, women’s status was 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 gender roles and expectations have contributed to a decline in the age gap at marriage between husbands and wives (United Nations, Economic and Social Council, 1999; United Nations, 2000). 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, 2011f).

      Women in informal unions may be at a disadvantage vis-à-vis women in legal marriages with respect to financial commitments and property division in cases of separation (United Nations, 2000). In both developed and developing countries, consensual and cohabiting unions are becoming more frequent, especially for younger generations (United Nations, 2011f). Polygyny, a type of informal union where a man takes more than one wife, is still common in some countries in Africa and South and West Asia (United Nations, 2011f). 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 widowhood status (United Nations, 2000).

      Both the 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, 2000). In countries where women enjoy economic autonomy, however, women in premarital cohabitation unions may be from all social groups and 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 always been socially acceptable and where, traditionally, rates have been high, divorce rates are stable or even declining. The proportion of women who are divorced or separated has increased, raising the number of lone mothers with children. The proportion of men who are divorced or separated is smaller, as men are more likely to remarry than women (United Nations, 2009).

      Widowhood is more common among women than among men (United Nations, 2009). Women tend to marry men who are older than themselves and are less likely than men to remarry after their spouse dies. 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, 2000, 2009). 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 widow may suffer abuse and exploitation at the hands of family members (United Nations, 2001).

  • + Data needed
    • Data on formation and dissolution of unions refer to:

      (a) First marriages by age and sex;

      (b) Marriages by age, sex and previous marital status of spouses;

      (c) Divorces by age, sex and duration of marriage;

      (d) Marital status by sex and age.

      Additional breakdowns should be considered, such as urban/rural areas and geographical 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 the living arrangements and living conditions of women and men who are no longer living with their spouses (divorced, separated or widowed). In countries where widows are subjected to discrimination 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, 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 are used to collect data on marital status by age and sex, usually defined in relation to the marriage laws or customs of the countries. Some censuses are also used to collect data on duration of current marriage.

      Household surveys are routinely used to collect data on marital status. Some household surveys, especially family and fertility surveys and demographic and health surveys, may be used to 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 are also used to 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 also be collected, as was the case with the fertility and family surveys conducted in Europe.

  • + Conceptual and measurement issues
    • Information on informal unions, in the form of either union status or age at entering the union, 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 often do not appear as separate categories in the classification of marital status used in censuses or household surveys. Consequently, 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 are therefore recorded as married, while the second and subsequent wives may be in consensual or visiting unions and are therefore recorded as single. As a result, an account of women living in informal unions, with all their particular socioeconomic implications, may be missing from official statistics. It is important that, in countries where informal unions are common, the classification of marital status used in censuses and household surveys 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 household surveys collect information on age at entry into informal unions in addition to information on age at formal marriage.

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