Never-married Women in Southeast Asia

Memo #96

By Joo Ean Tan – jetan [at]

In Southeast Asia the proportion of women who remain single past their childbearing years has been increasing. The figure tends to be higher among women who have tertiary education. There are significant implications when the number of never-married women becomes large: in Southeast Asia, women who do not marry tend not to have children and this will affect fertility levels. Also, what social identity will these women take in the absence of the wife-mother role?

The emergence of the older never-married woman is a relatively new phenomenon. As recently as the 1980 population censuses of Thailand and Indonesia, for example, not only did almost everyone marry, they tended to marry young. Marriage has been especially important for women; as it has provided them with their most significant adult role as wife-mother. The emergence of a noticeable group of older never-married women has been an abrupt departure from traditional norms.

Economic development contributed significantly to this change. Concomitant increases in education and employment opportunities have provided women with financial independence and the need for children as old age security has become less pressing. Marriage and childbearing, once an economic necessity, have increasingly become a matter of choice. Even so, these women still tend to be regarded as aberrations. Their choices raise questions about social order and gender relations. Intentional or not, eschewing the wife-mother role that has been so central in the organization of traditional societies suggests that gender norms are being questioned and the patriarchal social order is being challenged.

Marriage continues to be closely linked with childbearing – almost all of which takes place within the conjugal unit. Thus, the growing number of never-married women contributes to a lower fertility rate in many of these countries already below replacement. Without immigration, the population of these countries will shrink. Low fertility has serious social and economic consequences such as an aging population and its concomitant problems. Thus, the growing proportion of women who remain unmarried past their childbearing years is sometimes regarded by policymakers as a social ill that needs to be rectified. But no government has tried to intervene directly to decrease the proportion of never-married women.

Joo Ean Tan – teaches Sociology at Nanyang Technological University, where she works on social change in Southeast Asian societies.

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