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Marriage and divorce certificates: Tools for women’s empowerment


Irina Dincu

Senior program specialist, IDRC

Deirdre Appel

Program Manager

Shaida Badiee

Managing Director

Statistics about vital life events such as births, deaths, marriages, and divorces reside in civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) systems. When they function well, these systems are particularly beneficial to women and girls. Civil registration provides proof of identity and legal status, while vital statistics provide sex-disaggregated demographic data and key indicators, such as population distribution and maternal mortality, for better planning that meets women’s needs.

Our previous Perspectives article discussed how birth registration can empower the lives of girls and women. The case is no different for marriage and divorce registration. Marriage and divorce certificates are much more than simple pieces of paper — they are effective tools for women’s empowerment. Proper marriage and divorce registration contributes to a woman’s ability to inherit financial assets, obtain a fair division of assets, lay claim to spousal and child support, and provide proper birth registration for her child.

Protection for women and girls

To illustrate the importance of a marriage certificate, Emily Courey Pryor, the founding executive director of Data2x, tells the story of Blessing, a woman from western Kenya. Blessing’s marriage certificate served as the evidence she needed to legally claim her inheritance rights when her husband died. Without the certificate, Blessing risked losing ownership of her land and assets, as well as the economic security she derived from them, to her in-laws.

Like a birth certificate, a marriage certificate can also provide protection for women. A well-functioning civil registrar enables governments to apply the law and recognize only marriages that are entered into with full consent and by people who have reached the required minimum age.

Obstacles to registration

Despite the recognized benefits, many challenges remain to ensure that proper registration occurs and that women reap the benefits that follow.

One prominent challenge that women face is government failure to recognize certain types of marriages that are performed under customary or Islamic law. Customary marriages and divorces are widely prevalent throughout Africa, but they are not readily captured by civil registration, reports the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

Research supported by Data2X and the UN Foundation found that in some countries, the law does not allow the registration of customary marriages. In other countries, customary marriages are often unregistered because the onus to register is on the spouses, unlike civil and religious marriages where the officiant handles registration.

Cultural norms can also play a strong role in hindering marriage or divorce registration, particularly for women. The practice of polygamy, if illegal within a country, will result in the failure to record a large portion of marriages and divorces within a society.

Improving data on marriage and divorce

Improving birth and death registration rates are high on the global agenda to strengthen CRVS systems, but efforts to improve marriage and divorce registration receive less attention and funding, making it difficult for women to exercise the rights that proper registration would offer.

So how can we improve data on marriage and divorce registration, as well as the systems that maintain them? We have identified four critical areas of focus:

  • Examine barriers and hidden biases: What gender biases exist in the legal systems governing marriage and divorce? How do the current legal frameworks discourage or prohibit women from registering a marriage or a divorce?
  • Uncover the gaps: Where are we missing data on marriage and divorce registration rates? Where are women least likely to be registered or recognized? How can we increase demand for registration among these vulnerable populations?
  • Develop a strategy: How should countries register different types of marriages, especially those that are least likely to be registered or recognized? How do we overcome social, legal, and economic issues that prevent couples from registering?
  • Build capacity and knowledge: How can countries strengthen the technical capacity of their administrative levels within the registration system? How can local registration authorities register marriage and divorces more efficiently?

More can be done to obtain a comprehensive picture of registration coverage through surveys and by making data accessible and open. For effective and well-functioning CRVS systems, national governments must prioritize the collection of marriage registration data and reinforce CRVS as a top item on the political agenda.

The Centre of Excellence for CRVS Systems, housed at IDRC, is working to connect and convene relevant stakeholders to ensure CRVS systems are effective tools of empowerment for women around the world.

Irina Dincu is the senior program specialist for IDRC’s Centre of Excellence for Civil Registration and Vital Statistics System. Deirdre Appel is a program manager at Open Data Watch and Shaida Badiee is managing director at Open Data Watch.