to have diminished. A 15-year-old woman marrying a 25-year-old man probably has a lesser role in household decision making than a 25-year-old woman marrying a 35-year-old man.


Polygyny is one of the distinctive features of marital regimes in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in Western Africa. Polygynous unions are typically characterized by a large age gap between spouses, with women marrying young and men delaying marriage until at least their 20s, when they are able to acquire bridewealth. More common in societies with patrilineal descent systems and in which traditional religion holds sway, the prevalence of polygyny is expected to decline with increasing urbanization, schooling, and exposure to the West (Timaeus and Reynar, 1998).

An analysis of trends in polygyny in sub-Saharan Africa from the mid-1970s through 1996 revealed little change in the proportion of married women in polygynous unions; among 11 countries with multiple surveys, only Ghana and Kenya exhibited large declines, although there is some indication that the practice was also waning in Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda, and Uganda (Timaeus and Reynar, 1998).

In Table 7-13 we have updated this analysis. We have added 19 surveys conducted since 1997 to the original 39 (in 25 countries). Multiple surveys are now available for 20 countries. Declines are observed in Cameroon, Côte D’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Togo. Aggregate analyses of all married women ages 15-49 may obscure changes that could be occurring among younger women.

Table 7-14 provides information on the prevalence of polygyny for married women ages 20-29. Note that because women are more likely to be part of a polygynous union as they age, to detect change over time, one should compare across surveys but not age groups. Of the 20 countries with multiple surveys, the incidence of polygyny has declined in about half: Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar (where it was already very low), Malawi, Mali (possibly), Nigeria, and Togo.

The DHS data indicate that, even with these declines, polygyny is still a prominent element of marriage in sub-Saharan Africa. The social linkages that marriage creates and the economic gain and prestige that polygynous alliances imply for extended families apparently far outweigh the costs to individual women (Blanc and Gage, 2000). However, the practice has evolved over time. Noncoresidential arrangements for wives have emerged, particularly among the wealthy in urban areas (Antoine and Nanitelamia, 1996; Locoh, 1994; Wittrup, 1990).

In addition, while polygyny was traditionally practiced by the relatively affluent, there is the emergence of what has been termed “the polygyny of

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