Marriages and Wedding ceremonies in Ethiopia
By Abraha Abadi
World Map

Christian marriages in Ethiopia are:

  • Often arranged by parents of the bride and groom with a great deal of negotiation
  • According to tradition, bride must be virgin when marriage takes place
  • Virginity is highly valued in Christian traditions
  • Incest is forbidden
  • Parents investigate five generations among bride and groom families to establish there is no blood line
The Role of the Mediator:
  • Mediator is sent to would-be bride's parents
  • Parents of bride impose conditions
  • Mediator takes message to groom's parents
  • Preparations proceed if conditions are met
  • Engagement date is set
  • Wedding date is set upon agreement of both sides
When both families begin preparing feast for the wedding during which many guests are invited. On wedding day, the ceremony begins by:
  • Dances and Music
  • Bride's parents give dowry to groom, in most cases money or cattle;
  • Honeymoon lasts between one week to three months, depending on wealth
  • All the celebration after wedding at Groom's house
  • After honeymoon is over, groom and bride return to bride's house for a period of time; all the time, the best men accompany the groom;
  • During honeymoon, bride not allowed to go out during the day; she's allowed to go out after sunset (best woman accompanies her).


    Christian marriages, mainly in Tigray and Amhara regions, are often arranged by the parents of the bride and groom with a great deal of negotiation.

According to tradition and culture the bride must be virgin when the marriage takes place. Because the bride virginity is highly valued and pride in Christian marriage, with the whole family being shamed if the bride is not virgin at marriage. Rural women in particular tend to marry at a very young age than their husbands. In the past it used to be the custom for the bridegroom to be 30 years of age when getting married following the biblical example of Christ who waited until he was 30 years of age before beginning his public ministry.

Traditionally the groom's parents search for a bride for their son. Before they make any contact with the bride's parents they investigate to make sure that the families are not related by blood. In the past they researched back seven generations, but now five generations is acceptable. Once this has been done the boy's parents then make contact with the prespective bride's parents through a mediator. The mediator goes to the home of the potential bride and asks if their daughter will marry the son of the other parents. The bride's parents often impose conditions and the mediator will take the message to the groom's parents, then arrange a date for both parents to meet at a mutually convenient location.

When the parents have reached an agreement, the man and woman get engaged. The parents then set a wedding date and they meet all the wedding expenses. The bride and groom first see each other on their wedding day. Both parents prepare food and drink for the wedding and invite guests. The groom goes to the bride's house to take his future wife to be. The wedding ceremony starts with dances and music and the bride's parents give the groom a dowry, in most case money and cattle. At the end of the ceremony the groom takes his bride to his parents' house. The groom takes the bride's virginity during the first three days after the marriage. The honeymoon will last between one week to three months dependant on the groom's parents' economic circumstances. This takes place at the husband's parents' house and often the best man/men will also be present. After the honeymoon the couple return to the house of the bride's parents where they stay together for a set time, again with the best man/men present. During the honeymoon, the bride is not allowed to go out during the day; she is only allowed to go out after sunset.

In Muslim marriages, husbands may have up to four wives and having large numbers of children are traditionally considered to be a sign of status among Muslim communities. Muslim women do not have rights to own anything which is a matter of culture and as well as religion. If the husband of a Muslim woman dies, it is the husband's brother responsibility to look after the wife and the children. The husband's brother may marry her.

Nowadays many men and women, often those who live in urban areas as opposed to rural communities, do not follow this tradition and do not have arranged marriages but it is important to marry someone the family approves of.

This paper contributes to the economic analysis of marriage and the family by examining and analyzing the relative importance of potential determinants of assets brought to marriages in rural Ethiopia. One potential determinant is assortative matching, whereby the rich marry the rich and the poor marry the poor, generating a positive correlation between assets brought to marriage by both spouses. Another determinant explored is compensating parental transfers at marriage, whereby parents reduce assets transferred to their marrying children if their spouses bring more. The third determinant analyzed is parents. strategic behavior to improve the marriage-market ranking of their children by transferring more assets to them at the time of marriage.

Breaking New Ground

This paper breaks new ground by distinguishing assortative matching from compensatory transfer motives. It also separates factors that affect intergenerational transfers from those that reflect the relative scarcity of brides and grooms. In addition, instead of focusing on transfers at marriage from one family to the other, it used detailed data from rural Ethiopia to investigate the totality of assets brought to marriage, whether acquired from parents or other sources prior to marriage or received at the time of marriage.

Why Rural Ethiopia?

The diversity of this low-income, drought-prone country and the largely untouched local traditions in isolated areas make Ethiopia an ideal site for studying marriage customs. The study drew on the 1997 Ethiopian Rural Household Survey, which covered approximately 1,500 households in 15 villages across the country. Sample households were randomly selected, but these villages represented Ethiopia.s major farming systems and the range of its agroecological, ethnic, and religious diversity.

In Ethiopia.s primarily agrarian economy, how one fares in the marriage market is an important determinant of welfare. Assets brought at marriage constitute the dominant form of start-up capital for new farms. These assets affect farm-size distribution, since newlyweds typically initiate their own farming operations. They also shape how assets and incomes are distributed in a society where assets are accumulated with difficulty.

Evidence Used

The 1997 survey questionnaire included modules designed to address intrahousehold allocation issues, particularly conditions at the time of marriage, and were pretested in four non-survey sites. Questionnaires were administered in several separate visits by enumerators, who resided in survey villages for several months. Careful data cleaning and reconciliation took place in 1998 and 1999. In the sample, 62 percent were monogamous couples. Polygamous households.or parts thereof.accounted for 7.6 percent of the sample, while 20 percent were headed by unmarried individuals, usually divorced or widowed women. Separated couples accounted for the remaining 9 percent.

The intrahousehold modules collected information on the parental background, marriage histories, and premarital human and physical capital of each spouse and the circumstances surrounding the marriage, including the type of marriage contract and involvement in the choice of a spouse. A variety of assets brought to the marriage were recorded, as well as all transfers made at the time of marriage. Exhaustive questions were asked about each union listed by the household head. These pertained to assets.the value and quantity of land, houses, and livestock, as well as the value of any cash, jewelry, linen, clothing, grains, and utensils.that were brought to marriage, either by the male household head and his spouse or spouses, or by a female household head and her last husband.

Questions were also asked about transfers from the bride.s and groom.s families at the time of marriage, whether to the couple or individually. Background information about parents at the time the household head was married was collected for each spouse and each union. This included the landholdings of parents and the educational attainment of each. Data were also collected about the age and education of each spouse, as well as experience of each prior to marriage in farmwork, wage work, and selfemployment. T

Match making is an old, old art and it is still alive and well in Ethiopian society. In rural Ethiopia, where I was born and brought up, matchmaking and arranged marriages are still practiced by parents or next of kin. Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country with colorful and interesting diversity. However, the practice of matchmaking and arranged marriages seem to be common across ethnic and religious boundaries with some possible variations here and there.

In traditional matchmaking and marriage, prospective couples are not involved in the decision making process. And it is a foregone conclusion that couples will not go contrary to family decision.

I was surprised to discover that there are high tech versions of matchmaking in the United States of America. One is called Computer Dating. Interested people send personal profiles and a list of desirable characteristics in a potential date. There are reports that long term relationships have been established as a result of this method. Another popular American dating method is called Love Connections. This one is a television program which matches men and women. As in computer dating, interested participants send a description of themselves.


1. By Adugnaw Worku, Ethiopian Review, April 1993
2. Teum Teklehaimanot.
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3. Assets at Marriage in Rural Ethiopia
Marcel Fafchamps and Agnes R. Quisumbing

Source: Photos: Ruta Ceremony