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As Marriage Age Rises, South African Women Ask: Who Needs It?

As Marriage Age Rises, South African Women Ask: Who Needs It?
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As Marriage Age Rises, South African Women Ask: Who Needs It?

JOHANNESBURG — Marriage. Who needs it?

Around the world, residents of developed nations are delaying their trips down the aisle. Many brides and grooms, like the Duchess and Duke of Sussex, are coming in after the age of 30.

Their South African sisters are doing the same.

In recent years, the median age for first-timers in South Africa is 32 for women, up from 30 five years ago, and 29 in 2001.

It's part of a global trend where women's educational attainment and income are rising along with the age of the average bride.

Samina Anwary, a freelance content creator, is 33 and plans to wed in December. She says marriage was never a big deal to her, and she was surprised at the reaction she got when she broke the news.

"I don't think I've ever given people another kind of news that got the same kind of reception, which I thought was interesting," she said. "I mean, I've graduated and have gotten jobs. I've gotten all these things. But, like, when I told people I was getting married, that is the most excited I've ever seen them. I actually burst out laughing when they got, like, that excited, because I was like, 'But I haven't really achieved anything!'"

'Not in the cards'

For young professionals like 32-year-old Lweendo Hamukoma, a bookseller, marriage is not a top priority. Her parents have been married for more than three decades, but that's not a life she necessarily sees for herself.

"My mother finished school, and then she lived a little bit alone by herself, and she got married, had kids — that was the trajectory of a black woman's life," she said. "You finish school, you get married, you have kids. This was a successful life. I, on the other hand — completely different life. Go to school, figure yourself out, find a job that you know can pay you a living wage with that kind of stuff. And then just kind of start figuring out how to be a good version of yourself. Marriage is not in the cards."

Coming to that conclusion has been a process, Hamukoma says. She says her family's strong faith made marriage seem essential.

"Making peace with that has been very interesting, because I grew up very Christian," she said. "And, you know, when you're very Christian, one of the big life accomplishments is marriage, your spouse. But realizing that you can't marry yourself and that, you know, this requires meeting someone who you think is worth your time and worth, you know, building a life with. If I haven't met that person and I'm 32, I shouldn't be miserable, either. I shouldn't be like, around every corner, looking at every Tinder date, hoping he's the one. That sounds exhausting."

Psychologist Sinqobile Elevia Aderianoye, who specializes in couples therapy, says she's seeing a lot of indifference to marriage. And it makes sense, she says. The key to a happy marriage, therapists say, is open, honest communication. The traditional, subservient model of marriage doesn't leave room for that.

"I'm seeing a lot of Brad Pitts and Angelina Jolies," she said. "Just the basically, 'We just prefer living together, starting a family if we want to. If we don't want to, it's OK, as well. … The old version of marriage from the older couples I've seen is outdated because now I'm seeing older women who are saying, 'I don't feel like I'm listened to. I don't feel like you hear anything that I say.'"

More money, less marriage

Price comparison website Pricenomics crunched global marriage data and found one clear correlation: the higher the country's income, the later the age of marriage. Hamukoma's younger sister, Chipo, an economist who is also single, says she's seen similar data in Southern Africa, and that marriage for marriage's sake doesn't make logical sense.

"As an economist, the statistics for married women — that your health goes down, your pay goes down, stress goes up, your unhappiness goes up," she said. "Empirically, there doesn't seem to be much of a case, because single women are statistically happier and wealthier. So it's like, it has to be a really good marriage."

Even women who are taking the plunge into matrimony are forging new paths. Aderianoye eloped two years ago to avoid the drama and costs associated with big family weddings in this part of the world.

"I was like, 'Let's get married.' And he was like, 'If you're sure.' I was like, 'Yeah, I'm OK with it.' And for me, I felt comfortable with the person that I was with enough to say, 'You know what? I want to do this life thing with you,'" Aderianoye said.

Anwary plans to keep her surname because, she says, her fiance sees her the way she sees herself — as a partner, not as property.

And, she says, that's how many of her peers see it. Marriage is no longer the goal. Happiness is.