Suicide, mass weddings, divorce and domestic abuse - the harsh realities of being a 'spinster' in Africa

In one country a woman who dies without getting married is called a "maiden ghost". In another they are "leftover women". Why?

IN South Korea a woman who dies without ever getting married is called a Cheonyeo gwishin, or maiden ghost, this is because they are seen to have never served their purpose in life of winning a husband. 

Because of this, it’s believed that the ghosts have unfinished business and are therefore unable to leave the worldly realm, wandering around their living family and friends, in hopes they will arrange a “ghost wedding”, a paper matrimony with another deceased member of the village. 

In China the pressure on single women starts from the age of about 27, and even the government is getting involved. Sheng nu, commonly translated as “leftover women”, is a derogatory term made popular by the All-China Women’s Federation (a government organisation founded in 1949 with the intention of defending women’s rights!) that classifies women who remain unmarried in their late twenties and onwards. 

As part of a sponsored media campaign, since 2007, newspapers, magazines, websites have all been used to coerce and bully professional women into early marriages in the interests of safeguarding social stability. 

This has happened in reaction to China’s one-child policy family planning programme and the sex-selective abortions that ensued in the country which have led to a growing disproportion in the country’s gender balance. 

The “Aanissat”, “Spinsters”, “Vieilles filles” or  “Alte Jungfer” - throughout history unmarried women across the world have borne labels loaded with negative connotations. Despite gains made in female equality and empowerment the world over, these women are still found to endure the exhausting and demeaning branding of their single status, particularly as they reach their early thirties. 

In Africa, state and cultural sponsored animosity towards spinsters is acute, the pressure to be married and reproduce can be felt so acutely that it has in some places resulted in suicide. 

Rounding them up

The roots of repressive legislation against spinsters can be found deep into Africa’s colonial history. Between 1929 and 1933 a number of villages and towns throughout the region of the former Gold Coast had chiefs who ordered the arrest of all women who were over the age of 15 and not yet married. 

A woman was detained until she spoke the name of a man whom she would agree to marry. This man was then summoned to the court where he would affirm his desire to marry the woman and then pay a “release fee”. For the most part, “the capture of Asant’s spinsters” has escaped historical inquiry though some evidence points at exasperation by chiefs at “women’s uncontrollability” and the rise in venereal disease in the area. 

Interviews conducted with women who went through this experience went so far as to suggest that any woman who hadn’t chosen to marry was considered a prostitute by the chiefs. 

Laws that discriminate against unmarried women can still be found in Africa today.

In Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous Island of Tanzania’s in East Africa, the “Spinsters and Single Parent Children Protection Act” addresses the issue of women having children out of wedlock. 

The law prescribes a punishment of six months of community service to be started three months after the delivery of the child by an unmarried woman. This however is far less harsh than the previous 1985 act that stated that the women were to be jailed for two years if they had a child out of wedlock. 

Mass weddings 

The situation across Africa’s Arab states is particularly harsh since, in most conservative and patriarchal societies, the female character often represents motherhood and virtue. When women fail to fulfil these anticipated attributes, society retaliates mercilessly. 

For example, according to Moroccan law, all sexual relationships outside of marriage can be punished and women can be charged with prostitution. This has led to an unusual phenomenon in the summer months where mass weddings are increasingly commonplace. These mass weddings are aimed to tackle “the large number of women who are single” by bringing the cost of marriage, averaging $1,125, down. 

In Egypt, if a woman is not married by the time she’s 35 she is stereotyped as “aness”, meaning she’s not desired or wanted as she is above the age of marriage. The word “aness” is imposed by the Egyptian society because social norms dictate that potential and ideal brides should be in their 20s. This was captured in a 2010 movie by Director Mohamed Amin “Two girls from Egypt” which showcased the social pressure that Egyptian women are often subject to. 

In Egypt there is a rising number of women who are staying single into their thirties - this growing trend is explained by sociologists as a result of women looking to achieve financial independence, meaning work becomes a priority and sometimes results in their missing out on marriage. 

However the social stigma remains and can be overbearing - in 2009, Egypt’s National Centre for Toxins issued a report saying that about 2,700 Egyptian females tried to commit suicide because of “spinsterhood”. 

The pressure that the women are subjected to might also lead women to marry an incompatible suitor who comes knocking on their door to save them from their “doomed fate”. 

In Egypt in 2013, almost 17% of marriages ended in divorce and this had gone up by approximately 4.7% from 2012. It can also lead to situations of domestic abuse. 

For example in Nigeria, various articles and accounts describe a “society [that] considers [women] a failure if you have not married and given birth to at least one child by the age of [about] 28”, regardless of what they may have achieved. The labels of being an “unclaimed” and “degenerating commodity” means women may prefer to get into or remain in abusive marriages due to societal pressure. 

A worrying trend considering evidence suggests that husbands are the worst perpetrators of sexual assaults in Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa 65 million women are believed to endure regular violence from their spouse - surveys conducted revealed that 46% of Ugandan women, 60% of Tanzanian women, 42% of Kenyan women, and 40% of Zambian women report regular physical abuse by their spouse. 

As more and more obstacles facing African women in developing their own careers start to be challenged in the wake of increased recognition of rights and empowerment, more and more women will be at liberty to pursue employment they want. It’ll be interesting to see how society, and it’s women, evolve in it’s stigmatism against unmarried women and adapt to the individual choices women will want to make. 


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