Columnist Hugh Mackay asks: "So
When you listen to young people talking about their
parents' stressful marriages and messy divorces, and discussing their own aspirations,
it's clear the statistics reflect a rethink about the whole idea of marriage.
This doesn't mean that Australians are falling out of love,
or that they've lost the urge to cohabit. Far from it: "serial cohabitation" is
a concept you'll need when you begin exploring the new demography. The rising generation's
strongest commitment is to the idea of postponed commitment and they've made quite an art
form of keeping their options open, hanging loose, waiting to see what might happen next.
Mackay says that the country's statistics bureau predicts that
in the future as many as 40 per cent of Australians may never marry. Of course, that still leaves a
majority who probably will.
Marriage is still popular. Those who take the plunge enjoy
it so much they're increasingly inclined to do it more than once. In 1998, one-third of
all marriages were second or subsequent marriages for at least one of the parties.
("Repartnering" is another word you'll need.)
Other changes are also evident. Only half of today's weddings are conducted by a minister of religion, down
from 90 per cent in the late '60s.
Pre-nuptial agreements are no longer regarded as strange. As people
adjust to the idea that about one-third of all
marriages will end in divorce, couples are learning to temper their romantic dreams with a
bit of cold realism: let's decide in advance how we'll deal with a split, if it happens,
because, when it happens, we might be a tad less accommodating than we are now.
For those who long for the "good old days," Mackay reminds
them not to forget that marriage carried some heavy
baggage through the 20th century.
Stable marriages often maintained at great personal cost
were regarded as the cornerstone of a healthy society and "getting married" was
the goal of many people who feared that to remain single might be interpreted as a sign of
some personal inadequacy. (The fact that about 25 per cent of us never married was
However you choose to interpret the plummeting marriage and
birth rates, and the soaring divorce rate, marriage is clearly undergoing one of its
periodical transformations, for at least three reasons.
First, our lives are too long and relationships too complicated for marriage to work in
quite the same way it did when life expectancy was lower and gender roles were more
Second, young people have made a logical leap to the
conclusion that one sure way of avoiding the trauma of a divorce is to skip marriage
Third, the idea of marriage-as-institution is being
replaced by marriage-as-relationship. (As Groucho Marx put it: "Marriage is a
wonderful institution; then again, who wants to live in an institution?") This
changes everything. Glitches that might once have been tolerated as part of married life,
from a tiff over money to darker periods of mutual loathing, can feel like potentially
fatal flaws when "the relationship" is on permanent trial.
In any case, we marry, or avoid marriage, for many more
reasons than we did in the days when marriage was an acceptable passport to sex, or
respectability, or security for women.
But some of the old imperatives
still apply. The prospect of parenthood propels many couples into marriage (though about
30 per cent of babies are born to unmarried parents). Some couples believe the commitment
to a formal, legal marriage is an important declaration of intent; others cling to the
idea that marriage is a religious sacrament.
But, for a growing number, all such considerations have lost their meaning.
Mackay says that like every
generation before them, young Australians will make marriage in their own image. It's
already clear they will be less responsive than their parents and grandparents were to the
idea of gatekeepers who issue permits for marriage. They want the gates into and out of marriage, however that state
may be defined, to swing more
easily, and less noisily, on their hinges.
Human rights activists have reacted angrily to the sentencing
of 17-year-old Bariya Magazu after a trial likely to fuel controversy over the
introduction of the strict sharia penal code in parts of northern Nigeria.
The court in Zamfara state, the first of Nigeria's regional governments to proclaim sharia
law, tried Magazu on charges of having had pre-marital sex.
Zamfara officials said the court in the state capital Gusau had earlier this week found
Magazu, who is several months pregnant and being looked after by her parents, guilty of
having sex illegally.
"The court sentenced her to 180 strokes of the cane, and
she will be publicly flogged 40 days after she puts to bed (gives birth),'' one official
Rights groups described the sentence as barbaric and a violation of the girl's fundamental
"It's shocking and really very embarrassing. It is baffling why the Zamfara
government would go ahead to enforce sharia to the extent of having to give a small girl
180 strokes of the cane,'' said Samson Bako of the Constitutional Rights Project.
Bako said a coalition of human rights groups was considering court action against
Scotland plans to reduce divorce
waiting time and to ease rules for unmarried fathers to establish parental rights
A story published today in the London
Telegraph reports that the waiting time for divorcing couples in Scotland is to be
dramatically reduced under new family law plans.
Government proposals also would give unmarried fathers and
step-parents full parental rights for the first time. Ministers, however, will not
introduce these measures retrospectively.
Jim Wallace, the Justice Minister, said he expected a sharp increase
in divorces in the immediate aftermath of the legislation. He hoped that the new waiting
times would put an end to couples seeking a "quickie" divorce by citing
unreasonable behavior, with the effect that had on children.
The story says that such grounds accounted for more than half of the
12,000 divorces in Scotland last year. The proposals, which are expected to become law in
two years, cut the number of years that separated couples must wait for a divorce from
five, without consent, and two, with consent, to two years and one year respectively.
Ministers were pressed into changing the law given the high number
of children born to unmarried parents north of the border. Of last year's 55,000 births,
41 per cent were born out of wedlock. Currently, unmarried fathers must go to court to
secure the same parental responsibilities as the mother of their child, but last year only
335 out of 27,000 took those steps.
Under the plans, fathers who want to achieve full parental rights,
with a say in matters such as their child's education and medical treatment, must jointly
register the birth. Married step-parents are also to be given full parental
responsibilities, on the agreement of the natural parent.