Freedom of Partner Choice in Togo

By Meekers, Dominique | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Freedom of Partner Choice in Togo

Meekers, Dominique, Journal of Comparative Family Studies


In many traditional African societies marriages were frequently arranged by the parents of the couple, and in some cases infant and child betrothals were practiced. Theories of nuptiality and family change predict an increasing preference for and tolerance of freedom of partner choice, with a corresponding decrease in the prevalence of consanguineous unions, as part of a universal transition toward a western conjugal family system (e.g., Caldwell, 1982; Goode, 1970, 1982). Western ideas and values promoting individual partner choice are spread through mass media and education. In much of Africa the educational system is the offspring of Christianization, which also favors conjugal closeness. Consequently, education encourages Western thinking, and thereby promotes the individualization of marriage. Furthermore, urbanization, migration and industrialization disrupt the traditional social systems which were based on economic interdependence. Integration in the capitalist economy reduces this economic interdependence, and decreases the control of the elders in favor of freedom of the younger lineage members who are better educated, and who have new skills and abilities (Lesthaeghe et al., 1989: 240-241).

While there is some support for the claims that the influence of the elderly has declined and that young people increasingly choose their own partners in some African societies, there are also strong indications that a complete convergence toward a western family system with autonomy of partner choice may not occur. In Togo, it has been observed that autonomy of partner choice has increased among the upper classes, but although upper class females often chose their husbands themselves they generally try to obtain the consent of their families (Assogba, 1988: 18; 1990: 18-19). Even today public opinion still frowns upon marriages that have been contracted without the consent of the parents (Locoh, 1988: 22). his continued importance of the parents in the marriage process, despite the increasing autonomy of more recent marriage cohorts has also been observed outside of Africa (e.g. Malhotra, 1991, on Indonesia).

These findings suggest that the nuptiality transition may be much more complex than the model pictured by convergence theories. Kayongo-Male and Onyango (1984) challenge convergence theories because they overlook the fact that in many cases traditional family values are being retained and merged with modern family characteristics. Given the large cultural diversity in the traditional African family, Kayongo-Male and Onyango expect that the result will not be the universal, homogenous family system predicted by convergence theories, but rather different family systems for different cultural groups, each characterized by a mixture of traditional and western family traits. This paper uses data from the 1988 Togolese Demographic and Health Survey to examine what extent Togolese societies have moved toward individual partner choice, and to what extent cultural variations have persisted.


In traditional Togolese societies, parents often arranged the marriage of their daughters in order to prevent unwanted pregnancy, or to prevent marriage proposals from undesirable partners, including those belonging to a different ethnic group or from families that were in conflict with the parents of the girl (e.g., Durand, 1979; Manoukian, 1952: 24-25, on the Ewe). According to Agounke et al. (1990:100) most Togolese parents nowadays are willing to let their children choose their own spouse, but many parents do want to be able to give their opinion. It appears that the youths themselves also have good reasons to seek parental consent. By obtaining parental consent, the lifeline to the lineage network can be maintained even though the choice of a partner is individually made. Given the current economic crisis in most African countries, individuals cannot afford to reject the potential support of the traditional kinship system (Lesthaeghe et al. …

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