Betsileo - Marriage and Family

Marriage. When Betsileo marry, a steer ( vodiondry; lit., sheep's rump) is traditionally given by the family of the groom to the family of the bride. Preferentially and usually, postmarital residence is patrivirilocal, but the couple may reside in the wife's village if land is more abundant or if men are scarce. Since French conquest, marriages have been registered with the government. In the past, polygyny was associated with wealth and political status. Wives usually resided in different settlements; men with multiple rice fields often maintained wives and family households in each location. Marriages are arranged and may be with cousins, except that marriage is tabooed for the children of sisters. There are few first-cousin marriages, which the Betsileo believe lead to impaired fertility and hereditary maladies. Marriage is permitted between members of different local branches of the same named descent group. Older women play a key role in arranging marriages. There are cases of infant betrothal; husbands are usually a few years older than their wives. Trial marriages are common, and couples may begin living together as teenagers. Frequently, a marriage is formalized only after the woman becomes pregnant. By custom, the first child is supposed to be born in its mother's village, where the husband does brief bride-service. The marriage is formalized when a party from the husband's village goes to the wife's village to bring her and the child back to his village, where they reside virilocally. Divorce is permitted, but uncommon. Status considerations are important in arranging a good marriage, and there is a tendency toward stratum endogamy (see "Social Organization").

Domestic Unit. There is no standard or ideal Betsileo household. Nuclear families occupy, on average, 40 to 45 percent of the households in a village. Expanded-family households are common in wealthier villages. Older people, who tend to head such households, control the larger fields and can support more people, including adult children, grandchildren, and foster children. Single-person and couple households tend to be found more often in poorer villages. Households go through a developmental cycle; those that begin with nuclear families often become expanded or couple households, depending on wealth and kin networks. Ultimogeniture governs the inheritance of houses. The youngest child tends to remain in the parental household longest and stay on after the death of one or both parents.

Inheritance. Most men eventually inherit (part of) their father's estate, but Betsileo may also cultivate fields inherited through the mother. The disposition of land and other resources is subject to national law, but most estates are cultivated and passed on in accordance with tradition. When an old man dies, his oldest son customarily allocates the estate among himself and his brothers, usually taking the most productive field for himself. Because a women is expected to have the benefits of her husband's estate, she generally receives no rice fields of her own; however, husbands and sons of such a woman are sometimes allowed to cultivate her ancestral estate (and reside with or join her local descent group) if need is great, or if her father has few male heirs, or none. The inheritance rights transmitted through women are guaranteed in national law and can be enforced legally when kin become enmeshed in a legal dispute.

Socialization. Enculturation is an informal process that goes on in the community rather than principally in the parental household. Besides parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings are important socializing agents. It is common for a child to be fostered by an aunt, uncle, or grandparent for several years. Discipline of children is neither marked nor severe. For generations, education has been highly valued, and most boys and girls study through primary school. Under the French, and continuing for several years after independence, many Betsileo children learned both French and Malagasy languages. As a result of nationalization programs of the 1970s and 1980s, French instruction lagged. It is not unusual today for high school graduates to speak only Malagasy.

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