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Is domestic violence less prevalent in arranged marriages?

Updated Jul 29, 2015 04:03pm
Parents assume, and the brides are made to believe, that strong familial ties will guard against such violence. —Reuters
Parents assume, and the brides are made to believe, that strong familial ties will guard against such violence. —Reuters

Many Muslim societies believe domestic violence against women to be less prevalent in arranged marriages. Empirical evidence from Pakistan, however, paints a rather nuanced picture.

For centuries, parents of young Muslim women have forced their daughters into arranged marriages, often with their cousins, to protect land holdings or conform to their tribal customs.

Parents conveniently assume, and the brides are made to believe, that by marrying their cousins, young women will not be subject to domestic violence, that strong familial ties will guard against such violence.

Marital bliss or marital blisters?

The Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) in 2012-13 interviewed over 13,500 ever-married women between the ages of 15 and 49. The USAID-sponsored survey provides a treasure-trove of data on the health and well being of women. The survey revealed that one in three ever-married women experienced physical violence since age 15, whereas one in five women experienced abuse in the year leading to the survey.

But physical violence is just one manifestation of abuse. Women also suffered emotional abuse at the hands of their spouses. Since the age of 15, two out of five women in Pakistan suffered, at least once, physical and/or emotional abuse at the hands of their spouses.

One in three women suffered the same in the year before the survey. Even pregnant women were not spared, one in 10 women suffered abuse while being pregnant.

Also read: Tackling domestic violence

For decades, married women in Pakistan have suffered in silence. More than half of the women whose husbands abused them never sought help or shared their sufferings with others. In their ignorance, the parents perhaps thought their daughters enjoyed marital bliss. However, domestic violence left them with marital blisters instead.

Family ties and family trees

The PDHS revealed that most women in Pakistan are married to their first cousins; only two in five women wedded unrelated spouses.

A relatively larger number of women married cousins on their father’s side than those on their mother’s side. This tendency is likely the result of family’s preferences to keep the agricultural land and other assets within the family even after the young women were married to their first cousins on the father’s side. The same does not hold for marrying cousins on the mother’s side.

Source: Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 2012-13.
Source: Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 2012-13.

Dr. Nisha Malhotra, who teaches at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia, is curious to find out if cousin marriages protect women from spousal abuse.

Working with the PDHS, she found that the answer to this question is not that straightforward because the incidence of cousin marriages are not uniformly distributed across the urban-rural divide or are spread the same way across income strata.

Dr. Malhotra found cousin marriages to be more pronounced in rural areas where they accounted for 61 per cent of all unions compared to the 50 per cent of all urban unions.

Also read: Violence against women ‘most rampant’ in Punjab

And, whereas, only 32 per cent women were married to unrelated spouses in rural areas, a much larger proportion of urban women (45 per cent) had a similar union. Again, agricultural land is more commonly found in rural settings, which may be the reason why cousin marriages are more pronounced in rural settings.

Another reason could be the fact that villages are often established by rather insular communities (bradaries) where a large number of inhabitants are direct relatives.

Source: Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 2012-13. Drawn by Dr. Malhotra.
Source: Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 2012-13. Drawn by Dr. Malhotra.

An interesting picture emerges when we compare the incidence of domestic abuse for the types of spousal relations. The following figure presents a breakdown of domestic violence.

We see that 28 per cent of women married to unrelated men suffered physical (domestic) violence. A slightly lower fraction of women married to first cousin’s on their father’s side (26 per cent) suffered the same.


Surprisingly, a significantly larger proportion of women married to second cousins suffered physical abuse than those who married unrelated men. We see similar trends for emotional abuse.

Source: Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 2012-13. Drawn by Dr. Malhotra.
Source: Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 2012-13. Drawn by Dr. Malhotra.

Based on the preceding graphic and discussion should we conclude that cousin marriages do not necessarily lower women’s odds of being subject to domestic abuse?

Not so fast, says Dr. Malhotra. Since well-off, highly educated, and urban women are more likely to have married unrelated men, women’s odds of experiencing domestic violence should be estimated after one has controlled the factors mentioned above.

Also read: Hit him back legally - Domestic Violence Bill

Dr. Malhotra estimated a statistical model where she controlled for income, education, and other related factors. She found that when we control for other mitigating factors, the odds of a woman to experience domestic violence are lower for those who married first cousins. The same was not true for those married to second cousins.

Despite the evidence showing less infrequent abuse in first cousin marriages, women should not be forced into marriages against their wishes so that they may avoid spousal abuse. In a just society, people are kind to all, and not just to their blood relatives.