Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Freer Unions, More Complex Itineraries? Male Premarital Life in Rural Mali

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Freer Unions, More Complex Itineraries? Male Premarital Life in Rural Mali

Article excerpt


In recent decades, the transition to adulthood has been recognized as a period of life marked by complexity and uncertainty. The lengthening of the period of youth and the dissociation of the stages of transition to adulthood (sexual initiation, couple formation, entry into parenthood, residential and economic autonomy) that emerged in the North in the 1980s (Galland, 1991,2007), are now also observed in the South (Bledsoe and Cohen, 1993; Lloyd, 2005). Everywhere, attitudes to marriage play a key role in the redefinition of transitions to adulthood. In Europe, where age at first union was already high, this change has taken the form of a disaffection for the institution of marriage and the development of more flexible, and often temporary, forms of union. In sub-Saharan Africa, where early marriage was the rule for women, the generalized increase in age at first marriage is the most explicit expression of the transformation of the nuptiality regime (Hertrich, 2007a; Mensch, 2005; Tabutin and Schoumaker, 2004; van de Walle, 1993). This later age at marriage is not only an indicator, but also a driver of change in other aspects of marriage and entry into adulthood. Early female marriage is seen as a form of control by elders over the younger generations and so its decline is likely to be accompanied by a decrease in arranged marriages and greater individual responsibility in couple formation (Bledsoe and Cohen, 1993; Lesthaeghe et al., 1989; Locoh, 2006; Mair, 1971; Mensch, 2005). Moreover, when marriage is postponed, women have a longer period of premarital life, giving them the opportunity to broaden their experience and follow a wider range of itineraries (Hertrich and Locoh, 1999; Lloyd, 2005; Mason, 1993; Singh and Samara, 1996). Men are affected likewise, indirectly at least.

These general trends indicate that the ongoing nuptiality transition in Africa corresponds to a change not only in the timing of marriage, but also in the conditions of couple formation and premarital life: on the one hand, the traditional model in which marriage was managed by the family and young people were not expected to play an active role in organizing their union; on the other, a situation in which individuals have more room for manoeuvre, but are also facing more difficulty and uncertainty in their entry into conjugal life. While this general pattern sounds realistic, empirical studies on the topic are rare (Mensch et al., 2005; van de Walle, 1993). Several studies have shown that transition into marriage is experienced today as a complex and challenging process, especially for men in urban areas (Antoine, 2006; Antoine et al., 2001; Calves, 2007; Marcoux and Piché, 1998). But little is laiown about the experience of premarital life among older generations, or about current patterns and trends in rural settings.

The aim of the article is to document the long-term trends in the organization of first marriage and in the premarital life of men in a rural population in Mali (Western Africa). The hypothesis that entry into union is becoming increasingly complex will be examined from two points of view: 1) the pattern of male premarital life in the older generations, i.e., the extent to which it was a "simple matter" to get married when marriage was managed by the family heads; 2) trends in the dynamics of marital processes and in the diversity of premarital itineraries.

The study is based on data from an in-depth quantitative and biographical survey conducted in rural Mali. These longitudinal data are unique as they provide a record of all marriage processes, including those which failed before marriage, and, for each process, detailed information on the different stages involved (decision, bridewealth, duration, celebrations, etc.). It is therefore possible to examine trends in the organization of marriage processes, but also in premarital itineraries.


Apart from reproductive health issues, nuptiality patterns have rarely been a focus of study in African demographic research. …

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