Volume 35 - Article 3 | Pages 47–80

Pragmatic tradition or romantic aspiration? The causes of impulsive marriage and early divorce among women in rural Malawi

By Anais Bertrand-Dansereau, Shelley Clark

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Date received:05 Aug 2015
Date published:13 Jul 2016
Word count:9086
Keywords:divorce, Malawi, marriage, transition to adulthood, youth
Additional files:readme.35-3 (text file, 1 kB)
 demographic-research.35-3 (zip file, 15 kB)


Background: Despite increased attention to shifting union-formation processes, there is little consensus as to which is more stable, modern unions or traditional marriages. This is especially relevant in Malawi, where divorce is common.

Objective: We investigate what individual, family, and relationship characteristics are associated with early divorce, and how unions with these characteristics make sense in the lives of young women.

Methods: We draw on the 2006 wave of the Malawi Longitudinal Study of Families and Health (MLSFH) and on qualitative peer interviews by young people. We first investigate the prevalence of divorce by time since first union and then estimate a logistic discrete-time hazard model to test the association between individual, family, and relationship characteristics and early divorce. Finally, we use a thematic analysis of qualitative data to understand the social context of fragile relationships.

Results: The first three years of marriage exhibit the highest rates of divorce. Women who marry someone they have known for a short time and whose relationship is not embedded in family ties are more likely to divorce early. These impulsive marriages reflect characteristics that are borrowed from both modern and traditional cultural repertoires. Their fragility stems from the absence of both family involvement and a strong emotional bond between spouses.

Contribution: This research bridges the demographic literature on divorce in sub-Saharan Africa with anthropological inquiry into the globalization of romantic courtship and companionate marriage. We show that hybrid impulsive unions are more fragile than either modern or traditional unions.

Author's Affiliation

Anais Bertrand-Dansereau - McGill University, Canada [Email]
Shelley Clark - McGill University, Canada [Email]

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