Women's Marriage Behavior Following a Premarital Birth in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Smith-Greenaway, Emily; Clark, Shelley | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2018 | Go to article overview

Women's Marriage Behavior Following a Premarital Birth in Sub-Saharan Africa


Smith-Greenaway, Emily, Clark, Shelley, Journal of Marriage and Family


Across several world regions, a growing number of women remain unmarried at the time of their first birth (Heuveline, Timberlake, & Furstenberg, 2003). Although premarital pregnancies once resulted in immediate marriage in Western European countries (Kiernan, 2001) and the United States (England, Wu, & Shafer, 2013; Gibson-Davis, 2009, 2011; Raley, 2001; Seltzer, 2000), women increasingly remain single at the time of their first birth and often for several years thereafter. There is some evidence that these family formation patterns are becoming more prevalent in select Latin American (Laplante, Castro-Martín, Cortina, & Martín-García, 2015) and Asian (Raymo, Iwasawa, & Bumpass, 2009) countries as well. Far less is known about unmarried mothers in African countries and low-income countries more generally (Prince Cooke & Baxter, 2010).

Evidence from select African countries suggests that unmarried women's pregnancies are typically unplanned (Gage, 1998; Ocholla-Ayayo, Wekesa, & Ottieno, 1993), and thus women terminate these pregnancies at disproportionately high rates (Sedgh et al., 2012). Further studies suggest that unmarried African mothers who continue the pregnancy, and who do not experience a spontaneous miscarriage, commonly marry mid-pregnancy. In fact, childbearing is often a key element of the elongated marital process in many African contexts (Meekers, 1992); a large proportion of premarital pregnancies thus result in marital births (Meniru, 1995). This could explain why-despite often high levels of premarital sex (Mensch, Grant, & Blanc, 2006) and limited contraceptive access (Alkema, Kantorova, Menozzi, & Biddlecom, 2013)-premarital births are uncommon in some African countries (Clark, Koski, & Smith-Greenaway, 2017).

In other African countries, however, premarital births are far more prevalent. For example, more than 50% of women are unmarried at the time of their first birth in Namibia, and more than 30% of first-time mothers are unmarried in Gabon and Liberia (Clark, Koski, et al., 2017). The dramatic cross-country variation in the prevalence of premarital childbearing points to cross-country differences in African women's sexual and contraceptive behaviors before marriage as well as their responses to premarital pregnancy (e.g., having abortion or marrying mid-pregnancy). Little is known, however, about the experiences of women who remain unmarried at the time of their first birth. This is an admittedly small proportion of women in some African countries; however, in other countries it is quite large (Clark, Koski, et al., 2017). Understanding whether these women's transitions to marriage are generally accelerated or delayed and whether their unmarried status is short lived or prolonged will provide insight into family formation patterns in the region.

To better understand the life course experiences of Africa's unwed mothers, we draw on nationally representative data from 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa to examine the marriage transitions of 401,678 women, including 61,464 mothers who were unmarried at the time of their first birth. We compare the timing (i.e., age) of the mothers' first marriage to that of their childless peers, and we estimate how long mothers typically remain single before marrying. In addition, we explore whether mothers' marriage behavior has changed across recent cohorts.

Theoretical Framework and Research Questions

This study is grounded in a life course perspective (Elder, 1994, 1998). This theoretical perspective focuses on the timing and sequencing of events while accounting for the role of agency and historical context in shaping individual trajectories. It pays close attention to how major life events affect subsequent ones and ultimately influence individuals' lives.

In sub-Saharan Africa, two major life events-marriage and childbearing-are linked life course experiences, such that the timing of one has bearing on the other. …

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