In Sri Lanka, Marriage Can Wait

By Sirohmi Gunesekera, Womens Feature Service

“I had to have a house built for my family and see that my younger siblings were settled before I could think of getting married,” says Tharangi Riviratne, 33, a clerk at a lawyer’s office.

“At a younger age, one is not mature. One may find someone who is not suitable and regret having married him later,” feels Priyanthi Tiranagama, 31, a receptionist.

“I have not found a suitable person yet. I am not looking out for riches, just a good man,” explains Priyanka Ralbadage, 30, a nurse at a private hospital.

Increasingly, young women in Sri Lanka are putting marriage on the back burner. Amidst the traditional expectations of parents and men, educated women are keen to optimise their talent, spread their wings, study, tackle family responsibilities, and ensure their own financial stability before walking down the aisle.

Priyanthi is most categorical, “I feel it is better to remain unmarried if you don’t find a suitable partner. It is possible for women to remain single in Sri Lanka today because women have reached the top, thanks to education. It is not just men at the top anymore.”

According to ‘Changing Patterns of Marriage in Sri Lanka’ by Dr Nandana Karunanayake, “(The) rising age at marriage in Sri Lanka in recent decades can be understood in terms of both reduced feasibility and changed desirability. Major contributing changes include a deteriorating economic environment, the expansion into non-familial roles of women and concomitant changes in their and society’s view of their status and reformulation of nuptiality patterns generally. In the midst of these factors, the social and economic emancipation of women – however incomplete – appears a key theme in Sri Lanka’s nuptiality transformation.” (Published by Institute for Professional Development in 2000, ‘Changing Patterns of Marriage…’ describes and analyses the changing patterns of Mate Selection and Marriage in Sri Lanka.)

Dr Subhangi Herat, who heads the Department of Sociology, University of Colombo, elaborates, “After the 1960s, more women went in for higher education and employment. Then, there was the Open Economy after 1977, which resulted in an unlimited desire for money and all that money could buy. So, the expectations from a woman, with regard to her contribution to the family, changed. If a woman was educated and could also bring in a great deal of money, she was regarded as a highly superior match. So, initially women started marrying late because it was not easy to find a partner if her family did not have much money. This trend was prevalent throughout the late 1980s and 1990s.”

With dowry demands increasingly becoming a burden on middle class parents, many women realised the value of being financially independent – which led the way to their economic freedom and also gave them the opportunity to contribute to the family income. “In Sri Lanka, we have been brought up with the notion that marriage is inevitable. I am not fighting the idea. However, economic stability is a must. For me, education is a high priority. I have completed my studies and I am now working. Today, a girl has to be independent. One cannot depend on a man,” says a determined Shanika Gunesekera, 26.

Adds Nilukshi Thambimuttu, 26, “I need to finish my studies. I am doing my Masters in Business Administration and I want to finish this before I think of getting married. Then there is the question of financial stability. I don’t want to be dependent on my parents. If I get the opportunity, I would like to go abroad for some work experience. It is easier for a single person to go rather than for a family.”

It was once widely believed that women wanted to tie the knot early because starting a family at an older age could be a challenge, both physically and emotionally. Not anymore it seems, if you go by what Chandima Jayasena, 30, an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Colombo, says, “I don’t mind postponing having children. There are stereotypical roles for women in the family. But a woman can develop her individual identity by developing her talents.”

It is an argument that Shanela Peries, 26, an bank accountant, finds convincing, “I don’t feel any pressure to marry and have children. Some people want to marry by a certain age and have children by a certain age. It’s fine if it happens that way. But I don’t think girls should feel any kind of pressure. Nor do I feel that there is no other option for a girl other than to marry.”

Most young women are also reluctant to get hitched at an early age because they believe that once married men want women to limit themselves to taking care of the household chores and looking after the family while they take on the outside world. When 400 women were interviewed for a study titled, ‘Beyond the Glass Ceiling-Women in Decision-making’, conducted by the Colombo-based Centre for Women’s Research (CENWOR), they spoke of the difficulty of combining family and work, especially childcare. “Attitudes have not changed. Household chores are still not shared in the family so it is difficult for me to think of marriage just yet,” says Jayasena.

According to Nalini Ellawela, Founder Director, Sri Lanka Sumithrayo, a branch of Befrienders International, “All over the world, women have become independent and don’t want to tie themselves down as there are so many opportunities for women out there.”

However, government statistics now indicate that attitudes may well be in for a change. The latest Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) 2006-07 conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics states that the Singulate Mean Age of Marriage (SMAM), excluding Northern and Eastern provinces, is 23.6 years. The DHS 2000 figure was 24.6 years. So, there has been a decline. Dr Herat believes that because men are being disabled or killed due to the war and because many are now also migrating in search of job opportunities, the institution of marriage could change in the future. “The age of marriage has gone down but the latest data shows that it is not significantly so. The marriage age went up as there were high aspirations in terms of education and securing employment before marriage,” opines Malathi Weerasooriya, Programme Officer, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Concludes Peries, “Personally, I would consider delaying marriage only so that I would be really comfortable with that phase of my life. But, of course, different people have different reasons for putting marriage on hold.”

Women's Feature Service
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