Forced marriage risk may be related to birth order

Forced marriage may particularly effect elder sisters

I’ve so far not been using this blog to talk much about my ongoing research, but I had a finding yesterday that was so interesting I can’t resist sharing it.

In my Kurdish language survey, I asked respondents to input details of the marriage of themselves and their siblings, and one of the questions established what kind of consent to marriage was expressed, with four options: forced, fully arranged without consultation, arranged with collaboration, and freely chosen. For the purposes of the graph, I’ve combined forced and fully arranged as ‘low consent’ forms.

Marriage consent by birth order

Elder siblings have less choice in marriage than their juniors

What the data showed was that the earlier in the birth order a person was, the less the chance that their marriage was freely chosen. This was particularly marked for women, who are markedly less likely to have had a free hand in their partner choice across the whole sample (and indeed, women who made free choices received lower levels of approval from their own families and their partner’s families than did men who had made free choice marriages). In fact, of 97 marriages involving the eldest sister of a survey respondent, none were free choice. There are various reasons why this might be the case: for one thing, older siblings may have been born during a more tumultuous period in the Kurdistan region’s tragic history, and therefore may have grown up in an era where attitudes to gender and marriage were different. In South/Central Iraq, for example, there has been an uptick in the levels of early marriage due to the after-effects of American intervention, where it has been identified as a way of keeping women safe, and financial hardship has led people to pass on the expense of raising a daughter earlier.

However, given the age distribution of the sample, which is predominantly young, this explanation can’t be extended to all of the cases. One other reason is that, where cousin marriage forms an expected part of relationships between families, it may fall upon the oldest sibling to fulfill this obligation: indeed, the number of cousin marriages for eldest daughters was about 5% higher than for women as a whole. Another reason is that families may be using the marriages of their elder children to create relationships that increase their status in the community, but when it comes to the younger ones, either there is a lack of eligible candidates, or the family are just less interested in this kind of strategising. It’s also the case that where families are judged upon their ability to produce daughters socialised to embody the communal standards of a good, marriageable woman, the eldest daughters might be expected to ‘set the tone’, and bear a heavier weight of responsibility for family ‘honour’, which includes accepting marriage arrangement.

Theorisations aside, this is a valuable and interesting finding which could inform risk assessment and training on forced marriage. It would be interesting to see if further research would support this in other communities affected by forced marriage.

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