A rise in education, employment, and income levels for women in sub-Saharan Africa has prompted speculation that divorce rates would also go up—as they have in much of the developed world.
A new study, however, finds that divorce rates across 20 African countries over the past 20 years have remained stable or declined.
“Although urbanization and female employment are generally associated with higher rates of divorce, these factors are countered in sub-Saharan Africa by the rising age of first marriage,” says Shelley Clark, director of the Centre on Population Dynamics at McGill University. “We found that in African countries where women enter into unions when they are older and more mature, marriages tend to be more stable, resulting in less divorce.”
Marital instability and family structure are critical issues in this part of the world, where divorce comes with dire consequences for the health and education of children. In previous work, Clark, who is also a sociology professor, studied 11 countries in sub-Saharan Arica and found that while children of all single mothers tended to be disadvantaged (compared to children whose parents were married), children whose mothers were divorced were more likely to die than were children of never-married or widowed mothers.
Because most marriages and divorces in sub-Saharan Africa are not officially registered, researchers cannot rely on vital statistics data to compute the divorce rate, which is the typical method used in the US and Canada, explains Clark.
Instead, she and coauthor Sarah Brauner-Otto adapted a well-known demographic method, using data on the date of first union and current marital status from over 500,000 women collected in more than 100 Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) to indirectly estimate the probability that a marriage will end.
Highlights from their findings include:
- For several countries such as Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, the risk of divorce has remained remarkably constant over the last 20 years.
- However, there has been about a 10-percentage-point decline in divorce in Benin Ghana and Niger and smaller reductions in divorce in Liberia, Malawi, Namibia, Senegal, Togo, and Zambia.
- There is substantial variation in the risk of divorce within the first 20 years of marriage, ranging from 6.9 percent in Mali to 47.1 percent in Congo (Brazzaville).