Marriage Age

While marital status is important as such, marriage age may have a stronger impact on women's living conditions taken as the quantitative and qualitative aspects of life. If women are marrying at ages which undermine their ability to complete their formal education, also implying that the ability to reach experiential maturity is denied, there is a much greater difficulty for them to acquire the skills (and not just the resources) that will enable them to take an active role in shaping their lives according to their own priorities.

The formal legal standards of marriage age are set in the occupied territories by the legal system that was in place at the time of the occupation in 1967. Thus the West Bank Islamic courts, following Jordanian law, set the marriage age at 15 for women and 16 for men. In the Gaza Strip, which follows Egyptian codes, marriage age for girls is legally set at 17 and 18 for boys. While these are the legal minimums, in practice the courts are much more flexible. In Gaza the Shari'a court claims that its practical minimum age is based on a girl's physical maturity and consent to be married, since Shari'a law itself sets these as the only conditions rather than stipulating a minimum age. In the West Bank, although the minimum age is low, the law is easily circumvented by the reliance on witnesses to a girl's age rather than documentation. Thus, although the legal minimums (especially for Gaza) are comparable to those in Western countries, there is a profound problem of enforcement due to the absence of a state institution for regulating proper execution of the law.

While the recognized trend in the occupied territories over the last two decades has been that education and urbanization have led to a relative rise in marriage age, there has been much concern that the first period of the Intifada reversed this trend somewhat. One study documented a rise in early marriage in the years 1988/1989 in the Bethlehem and Tulkarim districts1. (Early marriage is locally defined as marriage below age 18). The suggested reasons for this were the long term school closures, which have de-motivated parents to extend their daughters' adolescence until they have finished school. This was coupled with the deteriorating economic situation, which has meant that for many families an adolescent girl is simply another mouth to feed. From the point of view of parents of sons, the motivation to marry them to young women during this period was based on a number of factors. First of all, the Unified Leadership banned wedding parties (which used to take up a large part of the cost of getting married) - thus marriage was cheaper. Secondly, extended school and university closures meant that many young men began to enter the work force earlier, and thus families felt is was their right to 'settle down'. Thirdly, there was a psychological dimension at play in which death is considered even more tragic for a young man if he leaves no male heir behind. Real fear for the lives of especially young men often was a main force in parents' decisions to marry young sons during this period.

Table 10.2 expresses the distribution of marriage age across the female sample population and for the different regions

Table 10.2 Age at marriage by region. Percentage.
GazaWest BankArab JerusalemAll
10-14 years1211811
15-16 years25263026
17-18 years27262826
19-21 years22221621
22-24 years79118
25+ years8787

More than a third (37%) of the entire female population got married under the age of 17 - the legal minimum marriage age for women in Gaza.

A sample survey can only give some clues about the changes that have taken place in marriage age in the occupied territories. In addition to problems caused by small sample size, a disadvantage of a sample survey is that a large proportion of the women in the FAFO sample are too young to be married. For example, 15.3 per cent of the women in the sample are below the age of 18. Moreover, because of high fertility, there are many more young women than old women in the Palestinian population - and in the sample. There are, for example, 187 women at ages 13-17 and only 101 women at ages 33-37, and only 64 women at ages 43-47. These factors may make the mean age at marriage, etc., for the full sample misleading. If calculated, much caution must be taken in the interpretation of the results.

We may, however, get a better picture of the development over time if we look at the median age at marriage, which is the age at which "half the women are married".2 The advantage of this measure is that it can be calculated as soon as half the group of women have married, whereas the commonly used mean age at marriage for a birth cohort in principle cannot be calculated until all women have passed the upper "age limit" for marriage -if such a limit exists in practice. However, this varies from culture to culture, and may also change over time. It is difficult to say that women will not marry beyond a certain age within a given context.

We have calculated the median age at marriage for different five-year birth cohorts, i.e. women born in the same five years (table 10.3).3 The median age of marriage has increased strongly: among women born before 1935, half of them had married at age 17, whereas the median age was 19 years for women born in the 1950s. For younger women, born in 1970-74 and who got married around 1990, the median age at marriage is fully 19.9 years. Among the youngest women in the sample, who were born in 1975-79, only 10 per cent were married, which is not surprising since they were only 13-17 years when they were interviewed. Consequently, their median age at marriage cannot be calculated yet.

Table 10.3 Median age at marriage by year of birth.
Year of birth (cohort)Age at interviewNMedian age at marriage
All women 121819,5
1929 and before63+8416,3

The increase in age at marriage is not monotonical, that is, every cohort does not marry at a higher age than the previous cohort. For example, the median age for the 1960-64 cohort is 0.9 years lower than for the previous five-year cohort. These irregularities may have been caused by social, economic or political factors, for example the occupation in 1967 and the Intifada, but they may also be due to sample uncertainty.

The increase in age at marriage is probably related to several structural changes in the Palestinian society, described in other chapters of this book, in particular the increasing education among women. (See, e.g., chapter 5, on Education).

The actual distribution of marriage age within age groups, organized in ten year age sets, is shown in table 10.4. This gives a clearer idea of the number of women who married early across age sets.
The table shows that there was a large decrease in early marriage among women in therir twenties compared to women in their thirties and above. While only 17% of the women aged 20 to 29 at the time of the study had married below age of 17, 31% of women aged 30-39 at the time of the study had married below age 17. Again, because of the large number of unmarried women in the 15-19 age cohort, we are unable to compare the instance of early marriage among their group to the older cohorts.

Table 10.4 Marriage age by current age. Percentage.
Marriage age

Are there differences in marriage age between the different regions? Table 10.5 presents median marriage age according to year of birth by region4.

Table 10.5 Median marriage age by year of birth
Year of birth (cohort)Age at interviewGazaNWest BankN
1935-4943-5718.7 5817.7101
Pre 193558+17.24616.283

The table shows that in recent years women in Gaza have married at a substantially younger age than their age cohorts in the West Bank.


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