January 23, 2023 | Press Release

Most Women in Sub-Saharan Africa Re-marry Quickly after Divorce or Widowhood, Even Though Re-Marriage Rates are Declining

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Two researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock, Germany analyzed union dissolution in 34 sub-Saharan African countries over the past four decades by applying indirect demographic techniques in a novel way to overcome the lack of data.

Union dissolution and remarriage are common in sub-Saharan Africa, where a considerable portion of marriages ends in widowhood and divorce. MPIDR PhD-Student Ben Malinga John and MPIDR Researcher Natalie Nitsche had a closer look on the topic and used a novel approach to overcome a lack of data. Their paper was recently published in Population and Development Review.

Their four main findings on union dissolution and remarriage in sub-Saharan Africa are:

  • Union dissolution is common, it occurs relatively early during reproductive ages, and the reproductive years lost to union dissolution are minimal. In 28 out of 34 countries, over 20 percent of first unions end within 15 years. The average marriage duration at first union dissolution varies between 4.8 and 9.4 years. Women across all countries get remarried rapidly. The average duration between the first union dissolution and the first remarriage ranges between 0.2 and 2.9 years. The overall reproductive years lost to union dissolution vary between 1.3 and 5.3 years.
  • Divorce and widowhood are declining, but not in all countries. Overall, all-cause union dissolution declined in 28 out of 34 countries. However, it is rising in four countries – Gambia, Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
  • Not only is union dissolution declining, but also the probability of remarriage following a union dissolution – a dynamic which has led to an increase in reproductive time lost due to union dissolution in several countries.
  • West Africa is unique from other sub-Saharan African regions concerning the level and timing of union dissolution, and the duration women spend outside marriage due to union dissolution. All-cause union dissolution is low and occurs at relatively older ages in West Africa. However, the propensity to remarry is high, and the pace of remarriage is more rapid in this region than in East and Central Africa. On average, the mean duration spent outside of unions before the first remarriage is 1.3 years in West Africa, 1.8 years in Central Africa and 1.9 years in East and South Africa.

“Not only whether but also when a union ends and how long individuals remain unpartnered is consequential for social and demographic outcomes,” says Ben Malinga John and adds: “For example, the timing of union dissolution points to the ages at which women who experience this event and their children are at risk of entering complex family structures such as single motherhood households, polygynous marriages and stepfamilies.” These living arrangements are generally associated with adverse socioeconomic and health outcomes. 

The challenge is that in sub-Saharan Africa, nationally representative data about the timing of union dissolution and the reproductive time ‘lost’ due to union dissolution is lacking. This gap is primarily due to the lack of detailed marriage histories in nationally representative surveys. “Thus, we believe that applying indirect demographic techniques in a novel way to produce these estimates from available nationally representative nuptiality data is necessary for advancing research on union dissolution, remarriage and its consequences for social and demographic outcomes in this region,” says Ben Malinga John.

Funding of nationally representative detailed marriage history data is necessary

The researcher and his co-author used data from almost 140 waves of the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) collected between 1986 and 2019 in 34 sub-Saharan African countries. DHS are nationally representative surveys introduced in the early 1980s. They collect several nuptiality information essential to the research questions. To produce marital state life expectancies, the researchers used the mortality estimates derived from United Nations (UN) 2019 population prospects life tables.

“Nevertheless, we call for national governments and International agencies such as USAID, UNICEF, United Nations Population Fund and Population Council to consider funding the collection of detailed marriage histories in nationally representative surveys in the Global South,” says Ben Malinga John. The collection of such data has far great potential to revolutionize the understanding of family dynamics and its consequences on children's and women's socioeconomic, demographic and health outcomes.

Original Publication

John, B.M., Nitsche, N.: Dynamics of Union Dissolution in Sub-Saharan Africa. Population and Development Review (2022). DOI: 10.1111/padr.12529

Authors and Affiliations

Ben Malinga John, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Stockholm University

Natalie Nitsche, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock

Open Science

The data used in this study are openly available.

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MPIDR-Authors of the Paper

Research Scientist (post-doc)

Natalie Nitsche

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The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.