Volume 34 - Article 15 | Pages 421–450  

First union formation in urban Burkina Faso: Competing relationship transitions to marriage or cohabitation

By Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès


Background: In several African cities the prevalence of unmarried cohabitation among youth has risen considerably. Because of its potentially negative implications for women and their children, in some countries cohabitation has even become a matter of heated public debate and policy concern. In contrast to industrialized countries, however, the choice between marriage and cohabitation in the region has attracted little attention.

Objective: The purpose of the study is to explore the rising phenomenon of young, unmarried, cohabiting couples in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, and to evaluate how characteristics of both partners involved in a dating relationship affect the choice between marriage and non-marital cohabitation when forming a first union.

Methods: Based on life history data including unique relationship biographies, the study takes a competing risks approach to examine relationship transitions to a first marriage or unmarried cohabitation.

Results: A long spell of unmarried cohabitation is common among youth in Ouagadougou today, and children’s exposure to cohabitation is high. While occupation, especially male occupation, is a crucial determinant of entry into union - having a similar effect on marriage and cohabitation risks - partners’ educational attainment, ethnic endogamy, and religion significantly affect the choice between marriage and cohabitation.

Conclusions: Ideational changes rather than economic ones motivate youth to choose cohabitation instead of marriage. Cohabitation in Ouagadougou has not become the "poor man’s wedding", as Oppenheimer’s hypothesis would suggest, but rather the preferred choice of dating couples who are more willing and able to distance themselves from familial expectations and marital norms.

Author's Affiliation

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