Figure 1 (above) groups the characteristics that signal readiness for marriage under eligibility. Individual factors, including age and physical maturation, can determine whether a community considers a girl to have reached an eligible marriage age. Familial factors can also influence whether a girl is considered eligible for marriage. A family in financial need might rely on their daughter’s early marriage to reduce household expenses, or to offset potentially higher dowry costs of older brides. In some contexts, girls of specific age groups are traditionally married in cohorts during the same marriage season, influencing community-level perceptions of when girls are eligible for marriage.
Under desirability factors that may make a girl attractive to potential suitors, accelerating her entry into marriage, are grouped together. A girl’s desirability may be affected by her physical attractiveness, her reputation in the community, her personality traits, her level of education, her work or domestic skills, or her perceived sexual purity. For example, in high fertility settings, puberty and physical indicators of fertility may increase desirability. In other settings, education and skills associated with income potential may be more appealing. The economic or social standing of a girl’s family may also influence perceptions of her desirability as a spouse. Financial needs, or needs related to domestic and caretaking responsibilities within a girl’s marital home, may lead to pressures on a son to marry an eligible girl. In settings where younger girls require payment of a lower bride price or dowry, household-level economic considerations may accelerate the timing of a girl’s marriage. Where social norms favour early marriage, delaying marriage may create anxiety that a girl who remains unmarried may attract fewer or less desirable marital prospects in the future.
Marriageability characteristics are not just individually based
Characteristics considered to influence a girl’s eligibility and desirability for marriage may relate
directly to the girl herself, but may also include:
- Her family’s traits or circumstances;
- Influences within her peer group; or
- Community-level expectations.
Typically, a girl may be considered eligible for marriage once she has reached a certain age or level of physical maturation. However, if her family is in financial need or others in her peer group are married, economic and social pressures may lead to her being considered eligible for marriage before reaching the traditional ‘marriageable age’.
Therefore a girl’s desirability is multi-factorial and may relate closely to her virginity or her personality characteristics. Or it may also be associated with her family’s socioeconomic position and how they are perceived by suitors and their families. Additionally, pressure from the family and/or community regarding her age and/or readiness can accelerate her marriage timing.
What’s sex got to do with it?
In many societies with high rates of child marriage, the most powerful factors influencing perceptions of marriageability relate to a girls’ sexuality. In particular, high value is placed on girls’ pre-marital virginity and the perceived threat of girls’ sexuality against their families’ reputation and honour. When pre-marital sex is seen as a threat to a girl’s marriageability, parents prioritise having their daughters married before their sexual initiation. The perceived reputational risks posed by a girl’s nascent sexuality can pressure parents to have their daughters married early in order to prevent them from engaging in pre-marital sex.
Where pre-marital sex is considered strictly counter-normative and connected to the girl and her family’s honour, then as soon as girls are perceived as capable of engaging in sexual activity, they become eligible for marriage. This perception may be connected to their physical development or behaviour (i.e., being viewed as promiscuous or attracting sexual attention).
In contexts where pre-marital sex is highly stigmatised for girls, pre-marital sexual activity or pregnancy are considered a serious threat to girls’ marriageability. In settings with high rates of child marriage, where pre-marital sex among girls is more socially accepted, girls who become pregnant are often pressured to marry their sexual partner quickly in order to ensure the child is born and raised within a marriage. If a marriage does not occur, having a child outside of wedlock impacts the girl’s or woman’s perceived marriageability.
Programmes addressing sexuality-related dimensions of marriageability
Programmes that aim to delay marriage for girls often address the dimensions of eligibility or desirability without touching upon sexuality. For example, some programmes provide cash transfers or other financial assistance to families to offset the financial demands that push girls to be considered marriageable at an early age. Asset-building programmes that provide life skills training and education to girls may help girls acquire skills that are valued on the marriage market, which minimises the anxiety related to girls’ spousal desirability. This gives girls and their families more bargaining power to delay marriage without feeling that they are risking their futures. Some programmes with families, particularly fathers, have tried to address families and fathers’ role in child marriage by suggesting ways to reduce the practice.
But how do programmes address the aspects of marriageability that are so closely related to girls’ adolescent sexuality? Programmes cannot directly address physical characteristics related to marriageability. Yet, programmes can work on the family and community levels to shift norms that understand menstruation and physical maturation as signs of marriage eligibility.
Research conducted with adolescent girls and their parents in programme countries, along with insights shared by programme implementers, demonstrate the centrality of girls’ sexuality to their perceived marriageability.
Insights from Programme Implementer Interviews
At the time of marriage, girls are expected to be virgins; otherwise, their marriageability decreases.
− Programme Implementer from Ethiopia
Sex appeal and decreasing marriageability with age
In our rural communities, young girls get more proposals. In older age, proposals come less frequently for girls. So they have a fear that if they get old, they will not find a good match. It is all attached to their bodies, beauty, and youthfulness. People have a perception that girl lose their sex appeal with every passing year, so people have these types of fears.
− Programme Implementer from Pakistan
Parents take their daughters as others’ property, so parents are worried that if something unusual (like affairs, pregnancy) happens, it would be difficult for their daughters to get married. Hence, the parents marry their daughters off early to get rid of all those situations.
− Programme Implementer from Nepal
Insights from MTBA qualitative research with adolescent girls and their parents
Virginity and reputational risks
Participant: It is about prestige, what else? It is about the girl.
Participant: If boys catch them, they may spoil the prestige.
Participant: That’s why everybody is scared.
− Focus Group with mothers in Jharkhand, India
Pre-marital pregnancy and marriageability
Interviewer: And what are the risks of getting pregnant outside of marriage?
Participant: If it’s a boy, he’s brought to the canton leader or the judge, and he is fined. But for the girl, it’s catastrophic.
Participant: If it’s a woman who is already divorced, there isn’t a problem.
Participant: She can go for years without getting married because she had deviated.
− Focus Group with married girls in Maradi, Niger
Learn more about the sexuality-related dimensions of marriageability
Check out the related articles below, each explores these themes across various settings while also highlighting key programmatic strategies to address sexuality-related factors that affect marriageability.