Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Structure and Child Mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa: Cross-National Effects of Polygyny

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Structure and Child Mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa: Cross-National Effects of Polygyny

Article excerpt

This study applies multilevel logistic regression to Demographic and Health Survey data from 22 sub-Saharan African countries to examine whether the relationship between child mortality and family structure, with a specific emphasis on polygyny, varies cross-nationally and over time. Hypotheses were developed on the basis of competing theories on the relationship between child health and family structure. Although children of mothers in polygynous marriages are more likely to die than those of mothers in monogamous unions, the relationship is constant across time. Familial factors including education, socioeconomic status (SES), and urban residence accounted for most of the observed cross-national variation associated with polygyny. Consequently, improving maternal education and household SES would greatly benefit child health in subSaharan Africa.

Key Words: African families, cross-national, early childhood, marital status, mortality, multilevel modeling.

Polygyny is the most distinguishing characteristic of the African family structure (Kayongo-MaIe & Onyango, 1984). An analysis by Westoff (2003) on trends of marriage and childbearing in less developed countries found that polygyny is more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa. There are also large regional variations, with Western Africa having a higher proportion of polygynous unions than Southern and Eastern Africa. For instance, Burkina Faso (54.7%) and Guinea (53.7%) in Western Africa have high percentages of polygynous marriages; in contrast, Eritrea (9.3%) and Madagascar (4.0%) in Eastern Africa have low percentages of polygynous marriages. Social change associated with modernization and Westernization was expected to lead to a decline in the prevalence and intensity of polygyny in subSaharan Africa (Pebley & Mbugua, 1989). The overall decline has been modest, however, and large variations persist between countries. In an analysis of 26 sub-Saharan African countries, the percentage of currently married women in polygynous unions dropped in only five countries between 1977 and 1996 (Timaeus & Reynar, 1998).

Some studies show that children of mothers in monogamous unions have better health outcomes compared to those in polygynous and singleparent families (Amey, 2002; Kuate-Defo, 1996; Sellen, Borgerhoff Mulder, & Sieff, 2000). The advantage of monogamy is associated with availability of financial resources for healthy child-rearing (Basu, 2000; White & Rogers, 2000). These resources are provided mostly by fathers, with the resources from mothers serving as a complement. Accordingly, the presence of other women in the conjugal unit combined with larger families is expected to dilute the resources available for healthy childrearing and obviate the expected advantages associated with marriage (Hames, 1996; Sellen, 1999; Sellen et al., 2000). With resources held constant, an additional wife and her children reduce the per capita amount of resources in families (Brabin, 1984). Consequently, children of mothers in polygynous unions are likely to face poorer health outcomes including malnutrition and death.

Other studies show that polygyny has either a positive effect (Ukwuani, Cornwell, & Suchindran, 2002) or no effect on child survival (Desai, 1992; United Nations, 1985). The positive effect of polygyny is mainly associated with the protective benefits of breast-feeding and longer interbirth intervals (Amankwaa, 1996). Also, gender-biased child care in polygynous homes has been associated with better health outcomes for the favored gender (Gillett-Netting & Perry, 2005). The disparate child health consequences associated with polygyny have been attributed to differences in the way polygyny is denned (e.g., Amey, 2002; Sellen, 1999) as well as study differences in design, data sources, and methods of analysis. Although there are several quantitative analyses on the effect of polygyny on child health, most investigations focus on a single country or are case studies (Borgerhoff Mulder, 1992; Sellen, 1999; Strassmann, 1997; Ukwuani et al. …

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