Is marriage becoming unpopular in Uganda? According to the latest Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (UDHS), marriage patterns are changing, with the institution attracting less people today than it did two decades ago.
The UDHS report shows that marriage rates are falling partly because people are postponing getting hitched or those who eventually marry do so at much later dates in their lives.
The rate of marriage decline is higher among men, with a nine per cent drop registered between 2006 and 2011 alone, the report reveals. Majority of the men who are not marrying are those under the age of 25.
The report notes that up to 38 per cent of men aged between 15 and 49 are more likely to have never been married compared to 24 per cent of women in the same age group.
“Men tend to marry at much older ages than women. For instance, among men between the ages of 25 and 49, only nine per cent were married by 18,” the report reveals.
By 20, the percentage of men who were likely to be married was 25 per cent.
Even though women are more likely to marry up to four years earlier than men, with the average marriage age being 17, the report shows the percentage of married women has also been declining - from 49 per cent to 36 per cent in the same period.
But what is keeping people away from marriage?
Stephen Langa, the executive director of Family Life Network, points at several factors.
“People have trivialised and liberalised sex. It is no longer seen as a sacred thing and because they can get cheap sex, they see no reason to marry,” Langa says.
He also points at rising cases of unhappy marriages, which discourages the unmarried from getting married.
“With all these unhappy marriages around, young people may not be motivated to get married,” he says.
Dr Andrew State, a sociologist at Makerere University’s School of Social Sciences, blames it on the economic situation.
“Most people want to go into a marriage that is stable and economically sustainable. When they don’t see that, they may delay or not marry,” he says.
In Uganda, while the legal age for a woman to get married is 18, it is common to find younger women being married off.
Among women in the 20-49 age group, 15 per cent were married by 15, and another 49 per cent by 18.
Median marriage age
The median age at first marriage among women aged between 25 and 49 is 17.9 years, which according to the report, has remained stable for the past 30 years.
Generally though, the median age for first marriage continues to rise, especially among women living in urban areas.
The same pattern is reflected among the better educated, wealthier women, majority of who choose to marry later in life or not at all.
It is not clear if economic factors have contributed to this trend but with more women getting an education and their financial status improving, the rate of marriage has also been declining globally as many find it more appealing to remain single and focus on their careers.
Langa explains that the economic status of women in Uganda could explain this changing scenario.
“Many women today are economically stable and so they don’t want a man who will stress them yet they can take care of themselves. If they can afford all that they want, then they choose to remain single,” he says.
In the report, the proportion of women who are in a formal union - married or cohabiting has remained stable at 63 per cent over the past five years. However, this figure reflects a reduction compared to women who were married or cohabiting in 2001, which according to the UDHS study was 67 per cent.
“The proportion of women in a formal union increases with age and peaks at 35-39. The decline after 40 is the result of widowhood, divorce, and separation. As expected, older women are more likely to be widowed or divorced than younger women,” the report notes.
Among women and men in the 15-49 age group, who were in a union, majority were more likely to be in a customary marriage arrangement.
In the same age group, at least 27 per cent of women and 15 per cent of men are cohabiting.
Religious marriages stood at nine and eight per cent respectively for women and men.
Just one per cent of both women and men in Uganda have had a civil marriage.
A remarkable pattern though in the findings of the report is how, despite a decline in the number of men who are marrying, those who eventually do so end up taking on two or more wives.
Polygamy, though slowly declining according to the report, stood at 25 per cent in 2011 among married women.
Five per cent of these women were in a polygamous union, with two or more co-wives.
Older women are more likely to be in a polygamous union compared to younger ones.
For instance, at least 82 per cent of women aged 15-19 are in a monogamous union compared to 69 per cent of women in the 45-49 age group.
Like most social patterns in the urban-rural divide, polygamous unions are common among women in rural areas at 26 per cent, compared to 20 per cent among their urban counterparts.
Regional distribution of polygamy also shows a huge variation, with the central region having the lowest percentage of women in a polygamous setting.
Karamoja - in northeastern Uganda has the highest prevalence of polygamy among women at 51 per cent.
In central, it stood at 39 per cent while in West Nile it was at 31 per cent.
The report also points to a strong correlation between education and polygamy - a pattern Langa agrees with.
“It has a lot to do with education and many of the people in such unions are not exposed,” he says.
According to him, even though polygamy still thrives in several communities, it should be outlawed.
“It is not a good thing and many people want to get out of it and it will take a lot of public awareness to let people know it’s bad,” he explains.
In the report, the proportion of currently married women in a polygamous union decreases from 33 per cent among those with no education to 20 per cent among those with more than secondary level education.
Some 17 per cent of men aged 15-54 report having two or more wives. Like women, older men living in rural areas and those with little or no education are more likely to be in polygamous unions.
In Langa’s view, young people should be encouraged to marry.
“The government needs to take the necessary steps and just like they do for HIV/Aids, they should be sensitising people about the benefits of marriage and how to have a happy marriage,” he says.
He adds: “when people marry, crime is reduced because there are more happy people.”