Historical Age of Marriage in Non-Western Countries

age of marriage in egypt

in the article “marriage in ancient egypt”, we read:

marriage contracts do not generally tell the age of the parties, but we know from other documents that marriage almost always occurred after sexual adulthood.

the average age for girls to enter puberty was 12 to 13, and around 14 for boys…

we find documentation of brides being as young as 8… it was not all together uncommon for older men who had usually lost their wife to either death or divorce to marry very young "women". qenherkhepeshef, a scribe from deir el medina for example married a 12 year old girl when he was 54.

(touregypt.com, http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/marriage.htm)

age of marriage in india

jack goody is a fellow of st. john’s college in cambridge. in his book the oriental, the ancient, and the primitive, we find that girls were married off very early in indian households:

srinivas writes of the days in india when ‘pre-pubertal weddings were the rule’

(1984:11): a girl had to be married ‘before she came of age.’ the father of a girl was obliged by hindu law and by custom of the country to marry her before she attained puberty, though cohabitation was often delayed, an average of three years…

(the oriental, the ancient, and the primitive, p.208.


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and it is well-known that such early marriages remain prevalent in india today.

age of marriage in russia

in russia, girls were being married off during childhood just some one hundred years ago. we read:

demause (1990)[8] pointed to “child marriage [being] widespread in russia well into the nineteenth century.”

(g.u.s.: world atlas, http://www2.huberlin.


age of marriage in china

in pre-industrial china, girls were married around the age of puberty, or even before the onset of puberty. we read:

prepubertal betrothal / marriage

in the period till 771 bc, menarche indicated marriageable age…in 1855, huc[10] commented that “[n]othing is more common than to arrange a marriage during the infancies of the parties, or even before their birth”… according to fei (1939:p40)[14], arrangements for marriage were made at age six or seven… the usual age for affiancing children [i.e. betrothal] was between seven and fourteen (baber, 1934:p134)[15]. for an elaborate description of the custom of infant betrothal as practised before 1911 in the conservative i-ch’ang districts, see hanyi and shryock (1950)[16]… most lolo groups marry at puberty, although “some lolos marry quite early, even at the age of four to five years” (siang-

feng ko, 1949:p491-2)[22], or are betrothed as infants (lebar et al., 1964). in general, “the age of puberty is a major juncture for youngsters of all nationalities. however, many of the minority nationalities [of china] encourage the marriage of their children before they mature, and thus follow the footsteps of the older generations”[23].

…among the turn-of-the-century taiwanese, the practice of minor marriage combined with a highly competitive marriage market drove the age of the brides downward, below puberty (ying-chang and wolf, 1995:p793)[24]

(g.u.s.: world atlas, http://www2.huberlin.


age of marriage in mongolia

the ancient mongols married off their daughters at a very young age. even today, it is very common to see mongol girls being wedded at the age of four or five years of age:

among the ordos mongols, children are sometimes betrothed even before birth.

this custom, called eŭndege in swie (“match-making before birth”), is thought by the mongols to be of very nacient origin. […] the actual age of marriage today [1938] varies a great deal, from four or five years to sixteen or seventeen, the average or ordinary age being fifteen (p66).

(g.u.s.: a world atlas, http://www2.huberlin.de/sexology/gesund/archiv/gus/mongolia.htm)

age of marriage in australia

the traditional aborigines similarly married their daughters off during childhood:

in traditional aboriginal society marriages are significant to the forging of alliances, and often betrothal arrangements are made when the prospective bride is very young, or possibly even unborn. a man may not marry until he has undergone a significant part of the lengthy initiation process: thus, at marriage a man will be in his twenties or even thirties. often a man’s first wife is the widow of an older man, and his subsequent wives may be much younger…

among yuwaaliyaay people, […] infant betrothal appears to have been the norm”[28]. among the aborigines of the wheelman tribe a baby girl is betrothed to a youth or man; he “grows” her, or supports her growing up (hassell, 1936:p682)[29]…calvert[32] mentions that “[…] a female child is betrothed, in her infancy, to some native of another family, necessarily very many years older than herself. he watches over her jealously, and she goes to live with him as soon as she feels inclined”.

spencer and giller ([1927, ii:p469-70) also mention betrothal of aranda girls “many years before the is born”. radcliffe-brown (1913:p184)[33] states that “marriages are arranged before children are born”. provis writes in taplin (1879:p93) of the streaky bay south aborigines that there can sometimes be seen “the incongruous spectacle of a little child betrothed to a grown man. the girl is called his kur-det-thi (future wife). they sleep together, but no sexual intercourse takes place till the girl arrives at the age of puberty”.

schürmann writes in woods (1879:p222)[34] of the port lincoln tribe that “long before a young girl arrives at maturity, she is affianced by her parents, to some friend of theirs, no matter whether young or old, married or single”. howitt (1904:p197) for the wolgal tribe reports that “a girl is promised as a mere child to some man of the proper class, he being then perhaps middle aged or even old”.

betrothal occurred when “quite young”, states bonney (1884:p129)[35]. child betrothal and marriage is noted for arnhemland (webb, 1944:p65)[36]. “a child a year old will sometimes be betrothed to an old man, and it will be his duty to protect and feed her, and (unless she is stolen by some one else) when she is old enough she becomes his wife…the yolngu practiced prenatal betrothal (money and erhhardt, 1973 / 1996:p142)[43], and, together with eventual siblings, join the husband at menarche, at age 12 or 13.

(g.u.s.: a world atlas, http://www2.huberlin.

de/sexology/gesund/archiv/gus/aboriginalaustralia.htm #_toc82729383)

age of marriage amongst native americans

the practice of marrying girls at a young age was prevalent amongst native american populations as well, as we read in an article entitled “living arrangements among native american elders”:

marriage was considered essential among all navajos with polygamy, divorce, levirate and sorarate being practiced. marriages were traditionally not based on romance but were arranged with the girls being married soon after puberty.

(living arrangements among native american elders, http://www.pop.psu.edu/general/pubs/working_papers/psu-pri/wp9605.pdf.)

we read further:

a delaware native american girl who reached puberty may have had her [marriage] union prearranged by her parents.

(weddingdetails.com, http://www.weddingdetails.com/lore/native.cfm)

the first menstrual cycle was seen by the native americans as the coming of age, and after a ceremony, the young girl was ready for marriage:

this following are accounts for the coming of age rituals of first young women followed by that of the young men. the first occurred when the girl had her first menstrual cycle… when this celebration [i.e. the coming of age] was complete, joy of being accepted as a woman remained with the young girl as well as five vertical red and black stripes painted onto her cheek. these strips would be eventually removed and when the last of them was gone the young girl would be ready for marriage.

(native americans, http://edf3.gallaudet.edu/diversity/bgg/ritesofpassage/native_american.htm)

the aztecs married their daughters off “well before the age of puberty”:

“most [aztec] girls were married (cohabiting) well before the age of puberty”

(mccaa, 2003)[3]. girls among the ancient aztec (nahua) married before age 15, and in many cases before 12 (mccaa, 1997; cf. 1996, 1994)[4]: “children became adults upon marriage, and most children above the age of 10 years were married (or widowed, separated or abandoned)”. females married very young, according to the narrative evidence from the book of tributes (cline, 1993:p31-2)[5]. quantitative analysis of these data places the average for females below the age of thirteen (g.u.s.: a world atlas, http://www2.huberlin.de/sexology/gesund/archiv/gus/aztec.htm)

the various south american tribes practiced early marriage, and this practice continued well into the 1500s.

it is sometimes referred to as a “rearing marriage”, i.e. the husband raises his wife from childhood. we read:

sumner (1906:p382) [29] cited reports that of child marriage where “girls of ten are mothers”[30]. child betrothal is reported among the guaraní of the paraná

river. “in some cases little girls were given to grown men, who lived with their child wives, probably in the house of their future parents-in-law” (métraux, 1948)[31]. child betrothal is also reported among the cainguá, but the girls were said to remain with their parents, who receive presents from their prospective sons-in-law (ibid.)…

for the samaraka, “[i]n the past, girls were formally betrothed (kiia) well before puberty, and “betrothal in the womb” was an accepted practice, while today mean age at betrothal is only a year or two below age at marriage and child betrothal is unknown” (price, 1975)[33]. among the warao, “[t]here were boys who were betrothed to little girls who had not yet reached puberty” (heinen, [1988])[34]. among the brazilian yanomamo, “[p]arents may also betroth their children while they are still infants” (early & peters, 1990)[35]. among the cuna, the premarital four-day debut ceremony is even sometimes given before puberty in the parents’ zeal to insure their daughter’s having it (stout, 1947:p34). as for the asang, “[a] girl at a very early age, between eight and nine, is betrothed to a young man, who at once takes up residence in the house of her parents, whom he assists until […] [she] is old enough to be married, when, without ceremony, they are recognized as man and wife (pim and seeman, 1869:p306-7)[36]…

the aikaná practiced betrothal in childhood, marriage took place after menarche (becker-donner, ?:p280)[38]. the same was formerly so in the makurap (p290).

the bororo practised rearing marriage (levak, 1973:p77-8)[39].

(g.u.s.: a world atlas, http://www2.huberlin.


age of marriage in africa

amongst the various tribes of africa, we find that the practice of marrying off girls at the age of puberty and even before that was very common.

rohlfs reported mothers of ten or twelve at fesan (cited by sumner, 1906:p382)[156]. the akan custom of “asiwa”[157] (infant betrothal) had almost become the principal form of getting married until it was abolished, in 1918, by the okyeman council[158]…

among the fanti, children could be betrothed before they were mature. the masai practiced fetal and infant betrothal. infant betrothal was further said to be practiced by the azande, and mbuti. childhood betrothal was practised among the dogon. yao girls would be betrothed as infants or small children. betrothal before birth or in early infancy was usual among the kuranko. among the ewe, children would be betrothed in childhood or before birth. among the tshi-speaking people, a girl was publicly advertised for marriage at puberty (age 11-12) by being paraded through the streets decked out in ornaments. lateral betrothals frequently took place before puberty and sometimes before birth.

among the yoruba-speaking peoples, girls of better class were almost always betrothed when children, frequently when infants, the husband in futuro being sometimes an adult, sometimes a boy. among the konkomba, a girl was betrothed to a man of more than twenty years of age, sometimes to an elder who may give her away for marriage.

among the ethiopean galla, marriages were often arranged by betrothal at a very young age. in the uganda protectorate, “[a]t any stage of its infant life a child may be betrothed to some other infant or to one many years older than itself”.

among the somali, infant betrothal may have been common in the past. among the mambwe / amambwe (zambia), betrothal was common in childhood. among the yahgan, little girls were betrothed to adult men; sometimes parents agree to unions between little boys and girls. the ila child was sometimes betrothed at age four, or even earlier. among the mouktélé (northern cameroon), children were betrothed in infancy, somewhere around age six. among the bangwa (western cameroon), a baby was betrothed at birth, or in infancy. among the bali (western cameroon), betrothal, but not marriage, of children could take place before menarche or puberty.

the fang were sometimes married before birth. koalib girls were betrothed at eight or nine years of age, and at twelve or thirteen the marriage was consummated. nuba men begin courting at age twenty and generally get betrothed to a girl child. among the azande, infant betrothal was the rule. as for the tshidi barolong (south africa), infant betrothal is practiced. among the nomadic fulani children were betrothed at ages seven to ten in the case of girls, and from three to ten in the case of boys. the shuwalbe fulani practiced infant betrothal between boy and girl. infant betrothal and adoption marriage among the mbaise igbo.

traditionally, betrothal in infancy or childhood was customary in benin kingdom and among the northern edo. in case of the igbira of northern nigeria, betrothal often took place in childhood. among the igala, betrothal could occur at age four to five. among the utonkon-effium orri, betrothal of girls occurred at birth. among the luo, child betrothal or marriage could take place. childhood betrothal was noted for the shambala. the nkundo girl could be betrothed in infancy. in tanzania, immature girls could also be betrothed, but infant betrothal occurred only in mock fashion…

among the african marutze, the children “are often affianced at an early age, and the marriage is consummated as soon as the girl arrives at maturity[162]. the negroes of the gold coast, according to bosman, often arranged for the marriage of infants directly after birth[163]; whilst among the bushmans, bechuanas, and ashantees, children are engaged when they are still in the womb, in the event of their proving to be girls[164]…

in ethiopia, marriage occurs between age 12 and 15. hausa women were married just before puberty (villages) or after (rural dwellers), to adolescents some seven years older. a tuareg girl may have been married by age seven or eight. fang children were sometimes married before birth. in pre-1900 nubia, girls were married at the age of from eight to ten years. g/wi girls were married at age 7-9, boys at about 14-15. among the kung, eight and nine-year-old brides would be married to teenaged husbands. bela would have been married before puberty. among the kabyles, a father could marry his daughter before she has reached puberty. among the igala (northern nigeria), the marriageable age was eight to ten for girls…

today[167], “very little country data exist about marriages under the age of 14, even less about those below age 10”. in ethiopia and in parts of west africa, marriage at age seven or eight is not uncommon. in kebbi state, northern nigeria, the average age of marriage for girls is just over 11 years, against a national average of 17[168]. a 1991 un population cart indicates legal ages of marriage of 9 in morocco (males, with parental consent, compared to 21 for females) and 6 for ghana (both sexes, with or without consent)[169].

(g.u.s.: a world atlas, http://www2.huberlin.


in many parts of africa, girls continue to get married upon the commencement of puberty. unicef recently surveyed six african countries:

a recent study by unicef in six western african countries showed that 44 per cent of 20-24 year old women in niger were married under the age of 15. the need to follow tradition, reinforce ties among or between communities, and protect girls from out-of-wedlock pregnancy were the main reasons given.

(unicef, http://www.unicef-icdc.org/publications/pdf/digest7e.pdf)

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