POIGNANT STUDY: Thembalethu Shangase graduated with a Master’s degree in population studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Young Zulu women are putting careers ahead of marriage, writes Marchelle Abrahams.

The institution of marriage is seen as a cornerstone of South African culture, but many young professionals are eschewing tradition and marriage to concentrate on their careers.

It’s an international trend that now seems to be catching on locally. Women are learning to become more independent and have come to the realisation that “he doesn’t need to put a ring on it”.

Thembalethu Shangase saw the trend developing among unmarried Zulu-speaking women, and found while marriage rates among the group were low, premarital childbearing remains consistently high.

She decided to use this for the basis of her Master’s degree research in population studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, under the title, “Investigating Marriage Aspirations and Attitudes Towards Premarital Child Bearing: A Case Study of Unmarried Female Zulu-Speaking Students at Two Durban Universities”.

“Once women are educated they can access the employment markets and have a diminished desire for marriage, thus forgoing marriage and possibly child-bearing,” says Shangase.

The study had special meaning for her because of her Zulu heritage. “It’s kind of like my story”

The groundwork for the study took Shangase two years. She interviewed 30 Zulu-speaking unmarried women at two KZN universities over seven months.

The results were groundbreaking. Never before has a study been done that specifically looks at the impact of education on women’s marital aspirations in South Africa. “Marriage rate declines are a global phenomenon. In South Africa, low marriage rates among the Zulus have been observed since the 1950s,” says Shangase.

She adds that over the years, there has been extensive research into the trends of marriage declines. “Professor Dori Posel and Dr Stephanie Rudwick researched the effect of lobolo on marriage.”

Shangase believes that given the low marriage rates among the Zulu population, coinciding with a high rate of pre-marital childbearing, “it became important to determine if the two phenomena had an effect on each other”.

Despite her research findings being unique to the study sample used, Shangase believes her work adds to the body of knowledge on the subject.

The majority of the study participants believed the effect of premarital child bearing on a woman’s marriage potential was dependent on what men desired. “Some men are not opposed to marrying a woman with an out-of-wedlock child which they have not fathered, while others, especially those who are traditional, are vehemently opposed to it,” she says.

“The ways in which the modern woman gets to grips with the meaning of life, including marriage and childbearing, is changing. Moreover, as much as the Zulu female desires marriage, an early marriage is most likely achieved through sacrificing other pertinent life goals. For the women in the study, their own financial independence, the well-being of their family and their career were of primary importance and worth achieving prior to marriage.”

Her research does, however, bring up an important question: Are Zulu women moving towards a more modern way of thinking? Shangase is conflicted when answering, choosing to take a two-pronged approach. “I think the young women in the study are progressively seeking more egalitarian relationships, but are also aware that in reality, there will be resistance to their ideals.”

A book on her findings could be on the horizon. She also hopes to publish her work internationally.