The Impact of Women's Socioeconomic Position on Marriage Patterns in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Kaufmann, Georgia L.; Meekers, Dominique | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Women's Socioeconomic Position on Marriage Patterns in Sub-Saharan Africa


Kaufmann, Georgia L., Meekers, Dominique, Journal of Comparative Family Studies


The received wisdom has been that marriage in sub-Saharan Africa was "early and universal" (van de Walle, 1968). This opinion is based on data that was poor in both quantity and quality. The collection of data in the last twenty years has been prolific and improved. A cursory overview reveals that both "early" and universal" are misleading adjectives to apply to contemporary Africa. The data used in the analysis presented in this article are both more recent and more representative of ethnic and social variation, and produce a wider range of values for the nuptiality measures. The mean age at first marriage for women varies between 15 and 21 years, and in Southern Africa the proportion of single adults is higher than elsewhere (over 50 per cent for adult women in some areas) (Lesthaeghe et al., 1989).

The difference between the contemporary pattern of marriage in sub-Saharan Africa described in this article and that discerned by van de Walle could stem from changes occurring since the 1960s, although there is little accurate demographic information useful to describe a starting point. The features described here are not necessarily evidence of change, but perhaps characteristic of "traditional" Africa. Many arguments have been suggested that traditional familial forms would make way for the Western family (Goode, 1963; Hunter, 1965). This notion of convergence, however, is based more on ethnocentrism than on evidence (McDonald, 1992). These theories tend to argue that contact with the West (e.g., industry, technology) would automatically lead to nuclear, conjugal families. While this has patently not been the case, such economic determinism overlooks the influence of culture on reproductive behavior. Although marriage is the means of biological reproduction, it is a social institution and is therefore influenced by cultural variables. Caldwell (1980) points to the need for understanding the influence of ideology on social reproduction and stresses how education is important because it can change ideology without any accompanying changes in the mode of production.

Education tends to be used as a proxy for socioeconomic development at an aggregate level, but at the individual level it has different implications. For a woman, the increased education and awareness may lead directly to a change in marital behavior (McDonald, 1985). The introduction of Western ideas and norms, such as individualism and free partner choice, may intervene with traditional arrangements for marriage, particularly polygyny (Caldwell,1982; Dries,1985). Supporters of economic and cultural determinism believe that Western influence would lead to a change in marriage practices in Africa (Goode, 1963; Gough, 1977; Hunter, 1965), such as a decline in polygyny. It has been rare to hear the contrary arguments, for example, that Westernization might lead to a strengthening of polygyny (Clignet, 1970, 1984; Capron and Kohler, 1975).

In this article, we examine theories positing that differentials and changes in marriage patterns are related to the relative status of women. In particular, we assess to what extent factors such as women's inheritance rights, women's involvement in trade and politics, and women's contribution to agricultural labor affect the nuptiality patterns of a society.

OVERVIEW OF THE AFRICAN NUPTIALITY REGIME

The societies of sub-Saharan Africa are characterized by distinctive patterns of marriage practices. The mapping of a range of nuptiality indices for specific regions and ethnic groups shows that this pattern varies in three regions-West, East, and Southern Africa (Lesthaeghe et al., 1989). When mapping the polygyny ratio (m), the ratio of currently married women to currently married men, polygyny is highest in West Africa (over 1.2), lower in East Africa and among the nomadic peoples of the Sahel (below 1.2), and lowest in Southern Africa. Recent surveys and censuses still find polygyny to be prevalent. …

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