The term “marriageable” describes a girl’s perceived eligibility or desirability on the marriage market. This concept may relate to a variety of attributes, such as girl’s age or physical maturation, her virginity or perceived ‘purity,’ her family’s financial or social position, her individual characteristics including temperament or physical appearance, or her skills including literacy or ability to complete
In high-prevalence child marriage settings, puberty and the onset of menstruation are often understood as indicators that a girl has reached a “marriageable age.” When describing men and boys, however, the notion of marriageability is not linked to physical maturation in the same way. Rather, a boy is considered to have reached a marriageable age once he has completed his schooling or has attained a certain level of economic stability. These gendered differences in notions of eligibility for marriage drive child marriage for girls and larger age gaps between spouses.
Beyond puberty as a marker of readiness to marry, the concept of marriageability is highly subjective and may evoke characteristics at the girl- or family-level. A girl may be considered more marriageable if she comes from a family of higher socioeconomic status or if her family has a strong reputation within the community.
In many contexts, adolescent girls’ sexuality is perceived as a threat to a girl’s reputation and her family’s honour. Premarital sexual activity is seen as severely decreasing a girls’ marital prospects and as putting her family’s financial future at risk. The risk of pregnancy, venereal disease, or gaining a reputation as being “loose” or “spoiled” underlie fears that girls engaging in sexual relations will become unmarriageable and risk precarious circumstances in the future. Especially where women and girls are highly economically dependent on men, the prospect of a girl being unable to find a husband is not only seen as a source of social shame but also as an economically destabilizing situation for her and her family. Where cultural and religious traditions place a high value on girls’ virginity at marriage, even experiences of sexual violence committed against a girl are considered to damage her reputation and perceived marriageability. To avoid such circumstances, parents prioritize having their daughters married prior to their sexual initiation and consider marriage as a protective factor against sexual violence and associated shame.
At the individual level, a girl’s marriageability may be linked to characteristics deemed attractive onthe marriage market, such as physical beauty or submissiveness. Skills related to domestic labour and relationship skills such as communication and conflict management are also often evoked as indicators of a girl’s marriageability. Education, work experience, perceived income-generating potential, or financial literacy may also be considered assets that increase a girl’s marriageability.
In contexts where the marriage formation process involves the exchange of dowry or bride price, notions of marriageability may be directly linked to the amount of money a girl can attract on the marriage market or to the amount of money her family is expected to contribute in order to formalize her marriage.
Perceptions of a girl’s marriageability vary significantly across contexts and are linked to social pressure to marry within a desirable window of opportunity. This page includes an exploration of various components of marriageability in different settings, particularly those components related to adolescent girls’ sexuality and gender roles.