Since time and patriarchy immemorial, a wedding and a marriage have been marked as the pinnacle of a woman’s life. Statistics South Africa recently released the Marriages and Divorces Report for 2014. There are a few key findings of interest to women.

Women vie for men’s attention

Gloria Steinem once said ‘I’ve yet to be on a campus where most women weren’t worrying about some aspect of combining marriage, children, and a career. I’ve yet to find one where many men were worrying about the same thing.’ The language we use when talking about marriage continues to reflect this idea.

The Stats SA report refers to unmarried women as ‘spinsters’ and warns that ‘men generally married women who had never been married’. The definition of a spinster is ‘an unmarried woman, typically an older woman, beyond the usual age for marriage’. Bachelor, on the other hand, carries no such age limits. What this implies is that women still have a ‘sell by’ date, whereas men do not.

In addition, choosing to speak about ‘men married women’ rather than ‘women married men’ the report continues to imply that men have the decision-making power, and that they pick and choose at will.

Weddings on the decline

There are three ways of getting married in South Africa: civil marriage, customary marriage, and civil union. These are recorded differently because they apply under different laws. In 2014, registrations took place for 150 852 civil marriages, 3 062 customary marriages, and 1144 civil unions.

The number of civil unions in 2014 was the highest on record since 2003. In contrast, both the number of civil marriages, and the number of customary marriages recorded in 2014 were the lowest recorded since 2003. This is not unique to South Africa, but a worldwide phenomenon where fewer people are choosing to marry, and opting rather to cohabit. As an aside, please note that there is no such thing as a common law marriage, regardless of how long you’ve lived with someone.

Under-age marriages

Age at the time of first marriage is considered an indicator for the status of women’s rights and experience of equality worldwide. A later age reflects the possibility of women having alternative life options (e.g. education, employment). South Africa still allows marriages for children under the age of 18 but with restrictive conditions. Despite these conditions, marriages of young brides still occur far often than marriages of young bridegrooms. For example:

· In 2012, 9 bridegrooms and 206 brides under 18 were registered. 2 of the bridegrooms, and 13 of the brides had already been married before.

· In 2013, 14 bridegrooms and 172 brides under 18 were registered. 1 bridegroom and 12 brides had been married before.

· In 2014, 10 bridegrooms and 131 brides under 18 were registered. 6 of the brides had already been married before.

Positively, the number of brides under 18 is decreasing each year, but it is still of concern.

Women are increasingly opting out

24 689 divorces occurred in 2014, 51.7 percent of which were initiated by women. Whilst divorce is obviously not something to celebrate, it is positive to note that women are able (emotionally and economically) to exit relationships that they are not happy in.

Also interesting is that divorces most commonly occurred in marriages that lasted less than 10 years, which is why it is unsurprising that about 22 218 children aged less than 18 years were affected by divorces that took place in 2014.

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