Blessing recognized that registering her marriage was the only way to protect her assets in western Kenya. Globally, marriage registration is an essential gateway to legal rights for girls and women. Photo by: Rebecca Furst-Nichols / Data2X

A well-functioning civil registration and vital statistics system — including birth, death, marriage and divorce registration — is important for both a country and its citizens. CRVS provides basic demographic and health data for governments that inform policy and investments in programs. It also enables individuals to prove legal status and access rights, which is why a solid CRVS system can have disproportionately positive benefits for girls and women who traditionally have fewer rights than boys and men.

Consider the story of Blessing from western Kenya.* She knew that to prevent her extended family from taking her assets, she had only one option.

“I have only daughters and my people don't value girls very much,” Blessing explained. ‘I could hear my in-laws saying, ‘she doesn’t have a son and [if my husband dies] this will all be left for us.’”

To Blessing, the solution was obvious: "I told my husband that we needed to legalize our marriage," she said. By formally registering their marriage, Blessing and her husband were unique. Only a very small percentage of unions in Africa are legally registered, though data on the full extent of marriage registration worldwide does not exist.

Blessing understood that marriage registration was a gateway to her legal rights, but her story did not end with the registration of her marriage. Four years after getting a legal certificate of marriage, Blessing’s husband was killed in a traffic accident. Her husband’s relatives tried to claim her land and the family's money, but Blessing and her six daughters were protected thanks to the marriage certificate. Not only were they able to keep their land, but Blessing was able to use her marriage certificate to access her family’s bank account, which was in her husband’s name. The small amount of savings he left behind covered school fees for her daughters.

Blessing’s story demonstrates how marriage registration is essential for girls and women. Marriage registration can provide legal backing against child marriage. It can govern custody of children and division of assets in the event of divorce or separation. In some countries, a woman's ability to register the birth of her children depends on whether she can produce a marriage certificate. And, as in Blessing’s case, marriage registration is directly linked to property and inheritance rights upon death of a spouse.

In addition, comprehensive data on marriage and divorce, as part of a stronger CRVS system, completes the demographic profile of a country’s population and, along with data on births and deaths, provides the basic numbers needed for planning for the growth and aging of the population and forecasting government services and expenditures. Without data on marriage and divorce, we are missing information on a key aspect of women’s vulnerability, as marital arrangements determine significant aspects of their lives and those of their children.

Data2X, an initiative of the United Nations Foundation, is advancing gender equality and women's empowerment by improving the quality, availability and use of gender data. We believe that if we want to make a practical difference in the lives of girls and women, and meet the targets laid out in the global goals, we must close gender data gaps such as those that are evident in marriage and divorce registration systems. To tackle this data gap need to consider key issues, such as:

• How should countries register different types of marriages, especially those that are least likely to be registered or recognized?
• Are there ways to overcome social and economic issues that keep couples from registering?
• How can we increase demand for marriage registration among vulnerable populations and those who are least likely to be registered?
• What gender biases exist in legal systems that govern marriage and divorce?

In order to make headway, we will need strong partners from all sectors. We need national governments to prioritize the collection of marriage registration data, and expand their definition of marriage to include customary marriages and other partnerships that are not legally recognized at present.

We need researchers, statisticians, data scientists and surveyors to include survey questions on marriage and divorce registration in order to get a complete picture of registration coverage. And we need civil society partners, working on the ground in countries where the marriage registration gap is the largest, to help us find ways to explain the benefits of legal marriage certificates and encourage couples to formally register their marriages.

Blessing was fortunate. She understood that marriages could be legally registered, and — equally important — her husband agreed to formalize their marriage with a legal certificate. Not all women are as lucky — either because they are unaware of the benefits of registration, or the barriers to registration are too significant. But if the Sustainable Development Goals are going to achieve gender equality, all women need the ability to register and recognize their most important life events.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy

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About the author

  • Emily Courey Pryor

    Emily Courey Pryor is founding executive director of Data2x. Hosted at the U.N. Foundation, Data2x works to accelerate the production and use of gender data to advance gender equality. Emily built and led the U.N. Foundation's program on Women’s Economic Empowerment, and served as senior advisor to the Girl Up campaign. Emily previously worked for Gilead Sciences and for the American Red Cross headquarters.

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