Human Nature

, 19:277 | Cite as

Kin and Child Survival in Rural Malawi

Are Matrilineal Kin Always Beneficial in a Matrilineal Society?
  • Rebecca Sear


This paper investigates the impact of kin on child survival in a matrilineal society in Malawi. Women usually live in close proximity to their matrilineal kin in this agricultural community, allowing opportunities for helping behavior between matrilineal relatives. However, there is little evidence that matrilineal kin are beneficial to children. On the contrary, child mortality rates appear to be higher in the presence of maternal grandmothers and maternal aunts. These effects are modified by the sex of child and resource ownership: female children and children in households where women, rather than men, own land suffer higher mortality rates in the presence of maternal kin. These modifiers suggest the detrimental effects of matrilineal kin may result from competition between such kin for resources. There are some positive effects of kin on child survival: the presence of elder siblings of both sexes is correlated with higher survival rates, and there is some weak evidence that paternal grandmothers may be beneficial to a child’s survival chances. There is little evidence that any male kin, whether matrilineal or patrilineal, and including fathers, affect child mortality rates. This study highlights the importance of taking social and ecological context into account when investigating relationships between kin.


Child mortality Kin Malawi Matriliny 



With thanks to the team of fieldworkers in Malawi who collected the data; to the Simon Population Trust, Parkes Foundation, and Boise Foundation for funding fieldwork; and to Mhairi Gibson and four anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the manuscript.


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© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Social PolicyLondon School of EconomicsLondonUK

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