Volume 39 - Article 6 | Pages 177–208

Polygynous marriage and child health in sub-Saharan Africa: What is the evidence for harm?

By David Lawson, Mhairi A. Gibson

Print this page  Facebook  Twitter

 

 
Date received:04 Jul 2017
Date published:25 Jul 2018
Word count:8643
Keywords:Africa, child health, family structure, international development, polygyny, sub-Saharan Africa
DOI:10.4054/DemRes.2018.39.6
 

Abstract

Background: Researchers from a variety of disciplines have presented data indicating that polygynous marriage is damaging to child health. This work has been used to support the classification of polygyny as a ‘harmful cultural practice’ and to advocate for marital reform across sub-Saharan Africa.

Objective: We present a critical review of studies of polygyny and child health, highlighting issues of context and variation. We also consider methodological limitations of the existing literature.

Methods: We describe key features of African polygyny, variation in its form, and the pathways through which polygyny has been hypothesized to influence child health. We then review the available empirical evidence, focusing on cross-national studies utilizing the Demographic and Health Surveys and relatively small-scale studies based on more specific socioecological settings (e.g., among particular ethnic groups).

Conclusions: We conclude that (i) heterogeneity in the impact of polygyny on child health should be anticipated a priori given substantial variety in its form, locally available alternatives, and the wider context of the practice; (ii) available evidence suggests that polygyny is most frequently associated with poor child health, but there are also instances where polygyny appears inconsequential or even beneficial to children; and (iii) methodological shortcomings are rife across the literature, severely undermining our ability to make causal inferences from observed relationships between polygyny and child health.

Contribution: Theoretical and empirical considerations imply that a singular health consequence of polygyny does not apply across all ecological and cultural settings. We encourage a more nuanced stance on polygyny in future academic and policy discourse.

Author's Affiliation

David Lawson - University of California, Santa Barbara, United States of America [Email]
Mhairi A. Gibson - University of Bristol, United Kingdom [Email]

Most recent similar articles in Demographic Research

» The impact of female employment on fertility in Dakar (Senegal) and Lomé (Togo)
Volume 20 - Article 7    | Keywords: Africa, sub-Saharan Africa

» Polygyny and HIV in Malawi
Volume 19 - Article 53    | Keywords: polygyny, sub-Saharan Africa

» Urban–rural disparities in adult mortality in sub-Saharan Africa
Volume 39 - Article 5    | Keywords: sub-Saharan Africa

» Intergenerational care for and by children: Examining reciprocity through focus group interviews with older adults in rural Uganda
Volume 38 - Article 63    | Keywords: sub-Saharan Africa

» Collecting data from migrants in Ghana: Lessons learned using respondent-driven sampling
Volume 38 - Article 36    | Keywords: sub-Saharan Africa

Articles

 

Citations

 

 

Similar Articles

 

 

Jump to Article

Volume Page
Volume Article ID