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Who does marriage really benefit? Marriage across cultures has a reputation of being the peak event of our journey through life. The ultimate goal and the answer to the big question, “What is your purpose on earth?”. The emphasis placed on the necessity of marriage for women is packaged as well-meaning even when the people who push them to marry know the institution is flawed.
Globally, an estimated 736 million women, almost one in three, have been subjected to intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life. In developing countries, the police are not well equipped to handle abuse and as a result, it’s treated like a private or “family” matter. This ensures that most times, the “solutions” proffered do not favour the women involved. The belief that the man is the head, the ruler of the home, and his wife and children are his subordinates/subjects also further skews the dynamics inside and out of marriages that make women susceptible to abuse.
Regardless, women are expected to aspire to marriage and the culmination of a woman’s life’s achievements are inconsequential if she’s not a wife or a mother – and there’s a ticking clock for women to achieve this goal too. For many women, marriage is more or less, indentured servitude and in less extreme situations, loss of personhood, aspirations and goals in exchange for the respect and protection that comes from the status – Mrs Somebody. But women have started to quickly learn, even this respect and protection comes at a price.
The loss of a husband has grave consequences on women in some African cultures. The violence and abuse that comes with widowhood remind African women that the perks of dignity that seemingly comes with the status of marriage is simply conditional and can be withdrawn anytime. For women who try to leave their marriages for reasons ranging from infidelity to domestic abuse, they are reminded of the shame culture that comes with being a woman that isn’t attached to a man. The culture of forcing women to stay in abusive marriages because of the stereotypes and stigma associated with divorce and “broken marriages” have led many women to believe marriages are a trap.
Another reason why women have started to decentre marriage is that self-determination is at an all-time high. More than ever before, women now have the ability and empowerment to make decisions for themselves. The effort that has been channelled into levelling the educational playing field for women is finally paying off. More women have access to quality education and a wide range of career options. Women are now able to dedicate their lives to more than family building and opt-out of it altogether if they so wish. Unfortunately, this is in no way universal. Women who live in religious fundamentalist societies or places with arbitrary cultural norms and enforcements are still forced into marriage and into staying in marriages even at their own expense. Also, the autonomy of women is stifled by silly medical practices like the deprivation of women of hysterectomies if they are unmarried because of the prospect of a future husband who may want children.
Marriage is supposed to be a beautiful union of two people, and this kind of marriage still exists, maybe even more now than ever. People have partnered for reasons out of love: financial stability, family connection, access to immigration and so much more. In these kinds of marriages, the goals are clear. I win, you win.
In the other kinds bound by love, the partnership of two people in love, expectations have started to change and women have started to demand true partnership. Marriage should not lead to loss of identity or autonomy and domestic chores shouldn’t be the duty of only one person based on gender alone. Neither should financing.
As the quality and standard of living continue to drop and financial stability becomes more of an abstract concept for many young people, fewer people are looking to partner up and procreate. “Nothing matters, all is futile” can be said to be a driving force for the increase in “carpe diem” living. This is in addition to more women becoming financially independent and not needing to rely on a husband or father for money. Women have always worked, but less if this work is now unpaid. This is a victorious reduction in the historical routine exclusion of women from career ventures that do not centre domesticity and jobs considered “women’s work”.
Decentering marriage is also a direct step towards dismantling systems of heteronormativity that rigidly exclude and punish all who dare to not be cisgender and heterosexual.
That more women no longer aspire to marriage and can now opt-out of unfavourable marriages is a breath of fresh air, a step in the right direction to fully seizing our rights to self-determination and bodily autonomy. Marriage is aggressively pitched to women and marketed as a necessity, something we are incomplete without. In many cases, it’s just women making concessions at their own expense. Women should be able to choose whether to marry, who to marry and when to marry; and should be able to walk away from marriages that do not favour them hassle-free.