Ugandans Delay Marriage for Education Despite Stigma in Community


Article Highlights


The numbers of unmarried men and women in Uganda have increased during the past 10 years.

KAMPALA, UGANDA – Nankunda, 42, is a single woman in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. She declined to publish her first name because of the stigma associated with being unmarried at her age.

“I haven’t met the right man,” she says. “That is why I am not married.”

Nankunda says she also prioritized pursuing her education and her career. She earned her doctorate in literature in 2011 from the University of Leeds in England. She now works as a columnist for one of Uganda’s national dailies.

“Perhaps if I were married with a husband and children who needed my attention, I may never have got it,” she says of her degree. “I can walk with my head high. There are a number of people who respect me – the liberal ones.”

She says that men admire her accomplishments.

“As a columnist, I have many admirers, some of whom are potential marriage partners,” she says.

But her relatives regard her as a failure because she has not yet married.

“The most unfortunate bit about this is that my aunties feel that I have wasted my life,” she says.

Nankunda says she wants to get married one day,

“Of course I would want to get married,” she says. “As a woman, I would feel complete if I was married.”

She notes various benefits of marriage.

“If you come back from [the] office stressed, you have someone to share your challenges with,” says. “When you are married, you have close people who care about you. Besides, everything starts in families. The families that we are raised in determine what sort of people we become. They define communities, churches and nations.”

For Nankunda, the main benefit of marriage is having children.

“My main worry is that I need to have children,” she says. “I know there are many unmarried people who have children, but I don’t believe in having children outside marriage.”

But she doesn’t believe in marriage for the sake of marriage.

“Being unmarried is not the worst thing that can happen to someone,” she says.

Until she meets the right man, Nankunda says that she is enjoying the benefits of being single.

“Single people shouldn’t sit around and feel sorry for themselves,” she says. “They have a lot to celebrate. A single person can work in any part of the world without any hindrances from the immediate family. As a single person, I prepare food that I want to eat and can come back home when I want. Married people have to compromise their tastes and preferences to impress their spouses.”

Traditionally, Ugandans have regarded being single as a bad omen, and communities have worked together to marry single youths. But this mindset is changing among younger and more educated men and women, who are delaying marriage to accomplish personal goals and to find the right match. Single women and men still battle social stigma for not wedding by a certain age but refuse to succumb to pressure from family, friends and society.

Nearly 25 percent of women ages 15 to 49 have never married, according to the 2011 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey. And 13 percent are divorced, separated or widowed.

The proportion of married women decreased from 49 percent in 2006 to 36 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, the proportion of those cohabiting rose from 14 percent to 27 percent.

Meanwhile, 38 percent of men between 15 and 49 have never married. The number of married men declined from 50 percent in 2006 to 41 percent in 2011, most noticeably among men under 25.

Traditionally, Ugandans have considered being single to be a bad omen, says Godfrey Waiswa, 62, an opinion leader representing the elderly in the subcounty administrative council of Massaja, a suburb of Kampala.

“Being single has never been a good thing,” he says. “The community tries to help those who were not able to find spouses on their own.”

Waiswa says that all people should get married.

“Marriage is the oldest institution,” he says. “People should all go there. If there was no marriage, where would children come from?”

Waiswa defines marriage as a man and woman living together as husband and wife.

“If a man and a woman are living together as husband and wife, then they are married,” he says, “whether they have had a church wedding or conducted a traditional marriage or not.”

He says that polygyny, the practice of men having more than one wife at one time, is also common.

In Uganda, 25 percent of married women are in a polygynous union, according to the 2011 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey. This has declined from 32 percent during the past decade.

Waiswa says that by age 30, all young people should be married. Those who don’t marry suffer discrimination in Uganda’s conservative society.

“The average age at which Ugandans get married is 18 to 25 for the girls and the boys,” he says. “The girls are all expected to be married by the time they are 30 years of age. Otherwise, they will not be respected in society.”

But this is changing among young, educated and urban Ugandans.

Hilda Twongyeirwe, a women’s rights activist and coordinator of FEMRITE Uganda Women Writers’ Association, a local nongovernmental organization, says that more Ugandans are becoming open-minded about marriage, especially people younger than 40 and who attain higher education. This is a departure from older generations, who still view single life negatively, she says.

“Marriage is still considered important, but it is not a priority,” she says.

She says that educated people pursue careers, so they now delay marriage or choose not to marry at all. She also attributes the shift in marital views to increased foreign influence.

“From the late ’90s, there was a lot of interaction between Ugandans and other nationals in schools, workplaces, churches and markets,” Twongyeirwe says. “They learnt from others’ different perspectives about marriage.”

More women than men are single because they don’t subscribe to the traditional patriarchal views of how wives should act in Ugandan society, Twongyeirwe says.

“Women who don’t fit the definition of marriageable according to society often find themselves remaining single,” she says. “Even men are looking for women who can play the women’s role – cook, raise children, look after the home – and these women are getting fewer.”

Twongyeirwe says people also now delay or avoid marriage because of economic reasons, personal preferences and past experiences.

“Some people have other priorities, others may have suffered disappointments and others, hard economic times,” she says. “Some may stay single because it suits them.”

Jovia Achieng, 35, a junior lecturer at Kampala International University, is single.

“Many men have proposed to me,” she says. “I think I am not ready yet.”

She says it’s important for women to build their careers before marrying and having children.

“It’s important for one to first develop their career before they get married,” she says, “because, as a woman, marriage comes with several responsibilities, like getting pregnant, raising children, which compete with time for career development.”

Achieng says the high cost of living also influenced her decision to delay marriage.

“These are hard economic times,” she says. “It is important to gain financial stability before getting married, whether you are a man or woman, even if the men are the breadwinners.”

Achieng says people don’t have to get married, and they can find fulfillment in other ways.

“You are first a human being before you become a spouse,” she says. “You can choose to get married or not. Marriage is not every man or woman’s destination.”

Achieng says she is not worried about her age when it comes to having a family.

“At 35, I am still young,” Achieng says. “Women can give birth even up to the age of 49. So I still have time.”

But Dr. Nathan Okiria, a gynecologist who owns a clinic in Namasuba, a Kampala suburb, disagrees.

“Most women in Uganda can give birth from 15 to 45 years of age,” Okiria says. “Not many are lucky to have children beyond that age.”

The median age of first birth for Ugandan women is 18, according to the 2011 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey.

Primah Kankiriho, 37, a freelance researcher, is single but has a child from a previous relationship.

“Being single is not exactly a bad thing,” she says. “It is better to be single than to be in a bad marriage. I was dating someone and wanted to marry him, but he had several other girlfriends. I was already pregnant, so I quit the relationship and I am raising my child alone.”

She says that she is better off single than with a partner who doesn’t respect her.

“The man should be able to respect me, not beating me up or sleeping around with other women,” she says. “If a man is engaged in any of these, I am better off without him.”

She has also used her singlehood to cultivate spiritual relationships.

“Being single has given me time to develop a personal relationship with God,” she says.

But like many other single women in Uganda, Kankiriho suffers stigma and discrimination. She says her family and friends ostracize her.

“Sometimes, my father would introduce all his children to the guests and pretend he has forgotten me,” she says. “This happened more than once. This is largely because I am supposed to be married and I am not.”

She says her family even excludes her from gatherings because she is not married.

“When my young brother was going to be introduced to his fiancee’s family, I was never informed,” she says.

Culturally in Uganda, all family members attend these occasions, Kankiriho says.

Some single men also say they face their own stigmas and social pressure to get married.

Faizal Agaba, 35, a statistician with Uganda Revenue Authority, is still single.

“I am beginning to feel the pressure,” he says. “Most of my friends are married. When we go to the bar to drink in the evenings, they want to leave early to go back to their families. They also constantly remind me that I need to get married.”

Agaba’s parents also pressure him to marry.

“My mother has been calling me to ask me when I am getting married,” he says. “The last time she called me, she also gave the phone to my auntie, who also asked me the same.”

Agaba says that one of his paternal uncles asked him whether he was impotent last year and offered to take him to a traditional or medical doctor. He says he also overhead some women in his neighborhood speculating that he might be impotent as well.

Tom Kasaija, 39, a single businessman, says that he has a 4-year-old daughter, so no one calls him impotent. But he is under pressure to get married.

“My workmates are always asking me when I am getting married,” he says.

But Kasaija says that he has not found the right woman.

“I haven’t met a woman who accepts me the way I am and loves my child and accepts her [as] her own,” he says.

Social pressure and stigma surround unmarried women and men, but Twongyeirwe says that unmarried women suffer more stigma than men. She says that she hears many negative comments about unmarried women but hasn’t heard any about unmarried men.

“Unmarried men are simply encouraged to find wives, but unmarried women are regarded impossible, rebellious and proud, demeaning men who approach them,” she says. “An unmarried women is looked at as one who has refused to fit in the box that society has designed for her. She is then seen as a rebel because society feels they have lost control over her.”

Despite the pressure, women like Kankiriho say they won’t succumb to societal pressure by rushing into marrying a man who doesn’t meet their expectations.

“I will not get married to anybody to impress society,” she says.

Kankiriho says she has not lost hope and is praying for a man who is God-fearing and respectful.

“I am believing [in] God to give me the right man,” she says.