Socioeconomic net on marriage knot | Daily News

Socioeconomic net on marriage knot

Registering a wedding

The divorce rate has increased between 1946 and 2012 from 4.8 to 17.9 divorce persons per 1,000 married persons (the number, however, is thought to be under-reported due to factors such as social stigma). With increasing divorce rates as well as many women being widowed at an early age due to decades of conflict, society seems to have relaxed its attitudes towards re-marriage. The report highlighted that a greater number of remarriages have also added to the increased numbers of marriages every year

Files pile up on the desk; ledgers, forms and marriage notices. It is a quiet day, just two weddings in the morning. Chandra Cooray, Colombo Division marriage registrar sat behind her desk at home/office, taking account of all the marriages she has registered for the day.

A seventh generation marriage registrar, she has been functioning as a local marriage registrar for the last 32 years.

“It was my uncle who initially suggested that I become a registrar. I was married at the time (All marriage registrars not surprisingly have to be married themselves) and several people in my family had done the job. So I knew a bit about it,” she said. Apart from a distant female relative who also took on the job, she was the only female in her immediate family circle to take on the task of marrying off people.

“At that time, the government was looking for more female candidates to be appointed as marriage registrars. So it was easier for us and my family encouraged me to do it,” she explained.

“It’s an honourable job and you can do it from home. I also only meet happy people as I deal with marriages and that makes the job all the more pleasing,” he added.

Cooray registers marriages under the General Ordinance which mainly applies to all ethnic communities in the countries except the Muslims, who are instead governed by the Muslim Marriages and Divorces Act.

Most of Cooray’s registrations however are for Hindu couples given her area of residence in Colombo 5. By now, she knows most of the customs involved and has no problem adjusting her services accordingly.

“The majority of registrars used to be Sinhalese but we had no problem. It is all the same for us. Recently they appointed four Tamil registrars in Colombo,” she said. The appointment of Tamil registrars have not impacted her clientele and the majority continue to be Hindu couples.

Local registrars are paid a lump sum of Rs. 9,000 every six months, which also includes rent for office space and are required to stay in their offices between 10am-2pm on weekdays.

“We can work on weekends if we so wish. There are days I have to travel a lot, but it is within my own division, so it is never far,” explained Cooray.

Over the years however, it has become more common to have female marriage registrars performing the official registration. Cooray explained that it had almost come to a point where people prefer to have a woman officiate,

“Many people like to have female registrars do their wedding, they feel that it is a special blessing, like a mother who oversees the function. Now we have almost equal numbers of male and female registrars in Colombo,” she said.

She proudly exclaimed that being a woman never stopped her from carrying out her official duties, though many conservative Muslim men point out that women would not be suitable for the job of marriage registrar.

Demand for her duties however have been on the rise in the recent past. A report released on ‘Fertility and Nuptiality’ by the UNFPA in December 2016 showed that the number of marriages in Sri Lanka are on the rise. More importantly, the mean age at marriage for both males and females have declined significantly, adding a considerable impact on the fertility rate of the country’s population.

More tying the knot

The UNFPA report highlighted that between 1981 and 2012, the number of females aged 15 years and above had increased from 4.7 to 8 million, while the corresponding increase in males was 4.9 to 7.3 million. Over the same period, the number of ‘never married’ declined significantly, for males it reduced from 43 percent to 30 percent and for females from 32 percent to 22 percent. As a consequence, the currently married increased significantly from 55 percent to 68 percent for males and 59 percent to 68 percent for females. Cooray recalled that in December 2016 alone, she registered 50 weddings with her average per month being from 30-40 weddings.

“On a certain month in the 1990s, I remember registering around 100 weddings. I was recording 16 weddings a day,” she recalled.

At the same time however, the divorce rate has increased between 1946 and 2012. It has increased from 4.8 to 17.9 divorce persons per 1,000 married persons (the number, however, is thought to be under-reported due to factors such as social stigma). With increasing divorce rates as well as many women being widowed at an early age due to decades of conflict, society seems to have relaxed its attitudes towards re-marriage. The report highlighted that a greater number of remarriages have also added to the increased numbers of marriages every year. “Parents don’t like to keep girls at home. If the girl is working it is fine, otherwise it is seen as a burden. Last week a girl, a girl who I registered 14 years ago, came back to get married for the second time,” recalled Cooray.

Marrying young

The more worrying factor, however, is the substantial decrease in the mean age at marriage for both males and females; a phenomenon not been observed in any other South Asian country.

The marriage postponement by both men and women during the 20th Century was quite common in Sri Lanka with the mean age at marriage for females being increased from 18.3 years in 1901 to 25.5 years in 1993. By 1994, mean age for men at marriage had increased from 24.6 in 1901 to 28.3.

Since 1993, however, marriage have become a central aspect in the lives of the youth. The mean age at marriage for females declined from 25.5 to 23.4 years over the period of 1994 to 2012 while for males, it dropped from 28.3 to 27.2 years.

On the other hand, those in cities still tend to get married later in life compared to rural and estate sectors. Sri Lankan Tamil women and men were choosing to marry the latest with Tamil women having a mean age at marriage of 24.4 years and men at around 27.

Moor men and women in the meantime have reported the lowest with Moor women having an average of 22.7 years and moor men being 26.4 on average when they get married.

What motivates them to marry young?

The UNFPA report pointed to the relaxation of the ‘marriage squeeze’ and socio-economic as possible reasons why more people are choosing to marry at a younger age. Marriage squeeze refers to the condition where under certain circumstances, the numbers of marriageable males and females would not be equal. At the turn of the present century, however, the sex ratio became more balanced. The advent of a decline in the male unemployment rate due to mass labour migration in turn made it more conducive for couples to marry early. Foreign labour has also allowed more women to accumulate money faster, allowing them to marry earlier. The report also pointed out that employed women seemed to marry faster than unemployed ones; with the job making up the dowry at marriage.

More babies

Once the women are married however, few seem to continue to work. Declining age at marriage has also led to an increase in fertility rates with Sri Lanka moving above the replacement level.

The 2012 census data, among 15-49 age group, females showed that only 30 percent were employed. Close to 66 percent were classified as economically inactive.

“Lowest age at marriage is noted among the economically inactive group (22 years), which would have influenced their fertility more positively than economically active women,” stated the report.

It further stated: “Low economic participation is related to high fertility. High fertility among them is due to economically non participation or because of high fertility they may not be in a position to enter into the labour force. Either way, the increase in fertility in recent times has impacted negatively on female labour force participation in the country.”

Low female labour force participation is an issue the current government is grappling with given the need for a skilled labour force to move towards high economic growth.

The report also highlighted that many have chosen to marry early due to changing attitudes towards late marriages, concern over having children later in life and more importantly it was connected to a change in state policy as well as community perception towards birth control.

“The population division in the Health Ministry, which had contributed significantly to enhance the knowledge of population issues including population growth, demographic dividend, ageing, reproductive health, contraceptives and so on… among the general public, received low priority and in 2006 was shut down,” stated the UNFPA report.

Abortion clinics, although illegal, the state turn a blind eye towards them for many years because of the demand many women had for them. Close to 90-95 percent of women who went to an abortion clinic were married. From 2006, however, the state chose to enforce the law more strictly with many clinics being shut down. Those who had an unwanted pregnancy, therefore, had no choice but to either get married or go ahead and have the child.

Cooray too observed that many came to her to get registered because of an unwanted pregnancy and that a better system needed to be implemented to solve the problem,

“They think that if they sign in my book, that’s the solution. But that does not stop anyone from leaving a marriage, if they want to go, they go,” she said.

More people in future?

The UNFPA population projection in December 2015 showed that at this rate, the population would grow to 25 million by 2042.

As we have more young people along with an ageing population, the working population would be put under immense pressure to support both ends of the pyramid. The government in turn would be required to spend more on the young as well as on the old, draining potential resources needed for development. The solution to many of these socioeconomic problems, therefore, is to reduce the fertility from above replacement to replacement level. Simply put, wedding are great, but if we do not control our population, nature will do it for us, one way or the other.

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