Academic journal article Population

Polygyny and Fertility in Rural Senegal

Academic journal article Population

Polygyny and Fertility in Rural Senegal

Article excerpt

Polygyny, a form of union where a man is married to more than one wife, is widely practised in Senegal. Comparisons of fertility surveys in sub-Saharan Africa have shown that the prevalence of plural marriage in Senegal is among the highest on the continent, and has been relatively stable over time (Timaeus and Reynar, 1998; Locoh, 1995). The proportion of currently married women of childbearing age who were in polygynous unions was 48.5% according to the 1978 World Fertility Survey, 46.5% in 1986, 47.3% in 1992/93 and 46% in 1997 according to the Demographic and Health Surveys of Senegal (Ndiaye et al., 1997).

In this article, we will briefly review the main points on which the literature generally agrees concerning the relationship between polygyny and fertility, before discussing the merits of various sources and methodologies used to study the issue. The body of the article is devoted to an account of our findings on the fertility of unions by age of spouses and by number and rank of the wives, as obtained from an under-exploited source of data, the 1988 census of Senegal. The emphasis is methodological. We cannot do justice here to the vast anthropological literature on polygyny.

I. Polygyny

Although the numbers of men and women of childbearing ages are roughly equal in most human populations, the practice of polygyny is made possible by a large age difference between the spouses, and by the rapid remarriage of women after widowhood or divorce. In rural Senegal, the proportions single are very small after age 25 for women, and after age 35 for men. Men usually start their married life as monogamists, and may acquire additional wives later in life; conversely, the number of wives may be reduced by divorce or widowhood. The majority of women spend some of their married lives as co-wives. Polygynous families rarely include more than two or three wives. Islam, the main religion of the country, allows a maximum of four. However, a man may inherit the widows of one of his brothers, and occasionally the number of wives may rise to six or seven.

Polygyny and large families provide labour, physical security and prestige among peers and family members. Boserup (1970) associates characteristics of modes of production with the widespread practice of polygyny in rural areas. Goody (1976) hypothesizes the existence of a relation between hoe cultivation and polygyny, and plough cultivation and monogamy. In societies were the payment of bridewealth is the common practice, richer men tend to contract more polygynous unions (Timaeus and Reynar, 1998). Thus, increased wealth is a cause and a consequence of polygyny.

Urbanization and industrialization are processes that weaken extended family systems and lower the prevalence of polygyny. Matrimonial preferences may depend on the degree of access to education, to the media and to consumption of western goods. The lessening of the practice of postpartum abstinence and the increase of access of girls to education are social changes that may contribute to a decrease in the practice of polygyny (Timaeus and Reynar, 1998).

A number of studies have focused on the effects of polygyny on fertility. Most of these were concerned with African populations, although historical studies of the Mormons in America have also contributed to a better understanding of the topic (Anderton and Emigh, 1989; Bean and Mineau, 1986). Plural marriage tends to create a higher demand for women on the marriage market. In polygynous societies, female age at marriage tends to be early, marriage tends to be universal, and women tend to remarry early after widowhood or divorce (Antoine and Nanitelamio, 1995); where they exist, as in Senegal, widow inheritance or leviratic marriage ensure that even older women with children remarry systematically. The institution of polygyny in a society, therefore, may promote high fertility, because it tends to be associated with more time spent by women in the married state, and therefore more exposure to the risk of childbearing (Pison, 1986; Timaeus and Reynar, 1998). …

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