Changing Family Formation in Nepal: Marriage, Cohabitation and First Sexual Intercourse

Article excerpt

CONTEXT: In Nepal, marriage occurs at a relatively young age and arranged weddings are widespread. However, recent changes in the family formation process and the timing of first sexual intercourse suggest that a transformation may be under way.

METHODS: Data on marriage, cohabitation and first sexual intercourse from the 2001 Nepalese Demographic and Health Survey were used to describe the family formation process. The sequence of these events and the intervals between them were explored for currently married men and women. Hazard models were used to identify factors associated with behavioral changes overtime.

RESULTS: The average age at marriage among women married before age 20 increased from 13.7 years for those born in 1952-1956 to 15.6 years for those born in 1977-1981, while remaining relatively stable for men married before age 25 (17.3 years for the 1942-1946 birth cohort to 17.7 for the 1972-1976 birth cohort). After individual and couple characteristics were controlled for, younger age at interview was associated with greater odds of simultaneous marriage and cohabitation for both genders (odds ratios, 1.3-1.7). Younger age at interview was also associated with premarital sex among men-those aged 39 or younger had significantly higher risks than older men of having had premarital sex, with odds ratios rising from 1.6 among those aged 35-39 to 1.8 among those aged 15-24.

CONCLUSIONS: It is important not only to promote education as a means of delaying marriage and childbearing, but also to implement programs and services that prevent reproductive health problems for young married couples.

International Family Planning Perspectives, 2008, 34(1):30-39

In Nepal, as in other southern Asian countries, marriage is universal and occurs at a relatively young age. However, age at marriage celebration has increased. While women born in 1952-1956 married at the median age of 14.6 years, those born at the end of the 1970s married at 16.5 years. (1)

This description, however, is somewhat incomplete, as in many Asian countries the marriage celebration, which marks the beginning of a conjugal union, often precedes actual cohabitation. Cohabitation may be delayed for months or even years for a variety of reasons, such as waiting for the bride to mature physically or waiting for housing to be made available. Consequently, to fully understand the process of family formation in Nepal,* we must take age at cohabitation into consideration. The median age at first cohabitation has been rising slowly, but still remains below age 18 for women born in the early 1980s. (2) Moreover, because age at first marriage has risen more quickly than age at first cohabitation, the interval between marriage and cohabitation has decreased. Men are also marrying at later ages, although for men born in 1942-1976, age at first cohabitation has remained more or less constant, at around age 20. (3) Recently, however, signs of an increase in men's age at first cohabitation have begun to appear. (2)

Young age at marriage in Nepal is closely linked to the widespread practice of arranged marriages, where relationships and agreements between families prevail over individual choices. Thus, a decline in very early marriage, accompanied by a decrease in the interval between marriage and cohabitation, may indicate a change in the marital decision-making process and an increase in the level of involvement on the part of spouses in the formation of their own marital unions.(4-6) Indeed, a number of recent studies have documented important transformations in Nepalese marital traditions.

For example, an analysis of data from the 1996 Chitwan Valley Family Survey, which was conducted in an area undergoing rapid social change in south central Nepal, showed the strong negative effects of three characteristics--school enrollment, employment and having, visited health care services--on the probability of ever marrying. …