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The decline of marriage in the West

The Economist (London) reported on April 1, 2006 that in Britain a fifth of all people aged 25 to 34 now live with a partner outside wedlock. Perturbed by the rapid disintegration of marriage and family, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, told leading politicians that saving marriage was a “life and death matter.”

The decline and disintegration of marriage in Western countries is not a sudden phenomenon; it has been in progression over the past few decades. A set of interrelated factors, including the growing sense of individualism and self-gratification, the steadily loosening hold of religious and moral values, changes in sexual mores and the accelerated pace of social change, have contributed to the steady decline of marriage in Western societies. The available survey data indicate that remaining single, living together outside marriage, births out of wedlock and rising divorce rates are becoming increasingly common in almost all Western countries. The reasons for remaining single, especially among women, include individualism, sexual freedom, freedom of lifestyle, and the growing financial independence of women. A survey of marriage in more than 30 European countries revealed that living together without marriage is becoming the norm rather than the exception in most European countries. In Sweden, for example, more than one-fourth of all couples are living together outside marriage. Nearly half of all babies in Sweden are born to unwed mothers. In Britain, as in other European countries, living together without marriage is becoming increasingly common. It is estimated that in the next few years four out of five married couples in Britain would live together before marriage. In Britain nearly one-third of all births are out of wedlock. It is estimated that more than half of all babies in the country will be born to unwed mothers or couples who are cohabiting outside marriage by 2012. In 1980 only 12% of babies in Britain were born to unmarried mothers. Figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that now four out of ten babies are born to unwed mothers. Denmark, Sweden and Finland have even higher figures. In the United States 33% of all births in 2002 occurred to unmarried women.

In addition to the increasing incidence of cohabitation outside marriage, another disturbing trend is what has come to be known as voluntary childlessness. In recent years there has come about a radical shift in the perception about children in Western countries. There is a growing belief among young women and men that not having children is the ideal way of life. Their increasing preoccupation with unbounded freedom, self-fulfillment and career advancement, coupled with work and financial pressures, keeps them away from having children. A recent study conducted by the Federal Institute for Demographic Research in Germany shows that 26% of men and 15% of women aged between 20 and 39 do not want to start a family. Fifty per cent of university-educated women of child-bearing age in Germany prefer not having children. In the 1990s nearly 60% of women aged between 25 and 29 in Germany had a baby. The figure has plunged to 29% in 2005. In Britain a recent report of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys predicted that 20% of women born between 1960 and 1990 will remain without a child. In the US 20% of women in their 30s are expected to remain without a child.

The growing tendency in Western countries to remain childless or to have just one baby has led to a steady fall in fertility rates. Italy, for example, has the lowest fertility rate in the world—1.2 births per woman. Demographers point out that in order to maintain the population at its present level, a fertility rate of 2.1 births per woman is required. The alarming decline in fertility rate in Italy is expected to result in a drop in population from the present 57.3 million people to 51.3 million over the next 25 years. German women want an average of 1.7 children. Germany’s population is set to plummet from the current 82 million to 70.8 million by 2050. Russia’s population is expected to decline by 17% in the next few years. In Britain women now have on average 1.7 children, compared with 2.4 children nearly 30 years ago. In the 1940s one in ten British women did not have a child; now the figure is close to one in four. In Sweden fertility rates have fallen from 2.1 a few years ago to 1.5.

In Asia, Japan has the lowest fertility rate—1.4 births per woman. Japan’s population is expected to drop by more than half (from 125 million to 55 million) by 2050.

The rapid fall in fertility rates in European countries is fraught with disastrous economic, demographic and social consequences. A much reduced young work force will have to support a large elderly population (thanks to increased life expectancy), which will strain the already burdened social security system. The requirement for migrant labour will continue unabated. A UN study points out that Europe will need 1.6 million migrants a year for the next 45 years to maintain its work force at current levels to replenish aging populations and falling birth rates.

Lesbian and gay relationships are on the increase in the United States and many European countries. It is estimated that gay and lesbian couples constitute nearly ten per cent of the US population. Gay marriages are legally allowed in the US and some European countries.

The increasing fragility of the institution of marriage in Western countries is reflected in the dramatic increase in divorce rates. In Britain around 40% of all marriages now end in divorce. About half of marriages of people in their 20s end in divorce. Nearly 20% of British children witness the divorce of their parents before they reach the age of 16. It is estimated that this trend will grow and that in a few years only 50% of British children will experience a normal, conventional family life. In Sweden and in the US the divorce rate is nearly 50%. In France nearly one-third of all marriages end in divorce. It is estimated that if the present trend continues, nearly 40% of all marriages in Europe and the US will be doomed to failure.

The consequences of marital breakdown, separation and divorce are particularly disastrous for women and children. The number of single-parent families (mostly headed by women) as a result of divorce or birth out of wedlock is rapidly increasing in all European countries. In Britain, for example, more than 20% of children live with only one parent. There are more than 1.6 million single-parent families in Britain. In the US nearly 25% of all households are single-parent.

The consequences of divorce and living in single-parent families are traumatic for children. The available evidence indicates that the absence of fathers is a key factor in the impoverishment of children. Generally, children from single-parent families do not perform as well in school as children from normal families. Furthermore, such children often have behavioural and psychological problems, including drug abuse, delinquency and propensity to violence. Alarmed by the growing incidence of suicide among children living in single-parent families, school shoot-outs and two teenagers killing their father, the US President George W. Bush recently proposed spending $300 million a year on initiatives to strengthen marriages. A recent study at York University in Britain, based on surveys by the World Health Organisation and the Organisarion for Economic Cooperation and Development, found that British children from single-parent families were among the unhappiest and unhealthiest in Europe. On a scale of “well being” they ranked 21st out of 25 EU nations. Many youngsters are barely on speaking terms with their parents and many were unhappy in school. They were found to be more promiscuous, with more than a third admitting having sex by the age of 15. More than a quarter of 15-year olds had been drunk 20 times or more, while 39% had used cannabis.

Remaining single, voluntary childlessness, delayed pregnancy and avoidance of breast feeding have adverse consequences for women’s health. Researches reveal that upper middle class and wealthier women are more at the risk of breast cancer because they tend to delay marriage and motherhood, have no or fewer children, prefer not to breastfeed the child, and are likely to have hormone replacement therapy. All these factors have a positive bearing on the onset of breast cancer. In Western countries the rate of breast cancer is 90-100 per 100,000 women.

Islam attaches a great deal of importance to the sanctity of marriage. It emphasizes that sexual gratification should occur only within the fold of marriage. The Prophet is reported to have said: “Marriage is a part of my way; therefore one who turns away from my way does not belong to me.” Sexual promiscuity, cohabitation outside marriage, birth out of wedlock and voluntary childlessness are strongly disapproved in the Islamic tradition.

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