, Volume 51, Issue 2, pp 341–366 | Cite as

Polygynous Contexts, Family Structure, and Infant Mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Emily Smith-GreenawayEmail author
  • Jenny Trinitapoli


Contextual characteristics influence infant mortality above and beyond family-level factors. The widespread practice of polygyny is one feature of many sub-Saharan African contexts that may be relevant to understanding patterns of infant mortality. Building on evidence that the prevalence of polygyny reflects broader economic, social, and cultural features and that it has implications for how families engage in the practice, we investigate whether and how the prevalence of polygyny (1) spills over to elevate infant mortality for all families, and (2) conditions the survival disadvantage for children living in polygynous families (i.e., compared with monogamous families). We use data from Demographic and Health Surveys to estimate multilevel hazard models that identify associations between infant mortality and region-level prevalence of polygyny for 236,336 children in 260 subnational regions across 29 sub-Saharan African countries. We find little evidence that the prevalence of polygyny influences mortality for infants in nonpolygynous households net of region-level socioeconomic factors and gender inequality. However, the prevalence of polygyny significantly amplifies the survival disadvantage for infants in polygynous families. Our findings demonstrate that considering the broader marital context reveals important insights into the relationship between family structure and child well-being.


Family structure Context Polygyny Infant mortality Sub-Saharan Africa 



Emily Smith-Greenaway wishes to acknowledge the support of the Predoctoral Traineeship in Family Demography (No. T-32HD 007514) by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to the Pennsylvania State University Population Research Institute. We acknowledge assistance provided by the Population Research Center at Penn State University, which is supported by an infrastructure grant by the National Institutes of Health (2R24HD041025-11). We also wish to thank three anonymous reviewers for their comments, and several colleagues for providing us feedback on earlier versions of the manuscript: Lauren Bachan, Michelle Frisco, Monica Grant, Adam Lippert, Wayne Osgood, Jenny Van Hook, and the participants of the International Perspectives on Family Structures and Child Well-being at McGill University (November 30–December 1, 2012).


  1. Agadjanian, V., & Ezeh, A. C. (2000). Polygyny, gender relations, and reproduction in Ghana. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 31, 427–442.Google Scholar
  2. Amankwaa, A. A. (1996). Prior and proximate causes of infant survival in Ghana, with special attention to polygyny. Journal of Biosocial Science, 28, 281–295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Amankwaa, A. A., Eberstein, I. W., & Schmertmann, C. P. (2001). Polygyny and infant morality in western Africa: Evidence from Ghana. African Population Studies, 16, 1–13.Google Scholar
  4. Amey, F. K. (2002). Polygyny and child survival in West Africa. Social Biology, 49, 74–89.Google Scholar
  5. Bachrach, C. (Forthcoming). Culture and demography: From reluctant bedfellows to committed partners. Demography.Google Scholar
  6. Bledsoe, C. (1990). Transformations in sub-Saharan African marriage and fertility. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 510, 115–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bledsoe, C. (1995). Marginal members: Children of previous unions in Mende households in Sierra Leone. Situating fertility, anthropology and demographic inquiry (pp. 130–153). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Bose, S. (2011). The effect of women’s status and community on the gender differential in children’s nutrition in India. Journal of Biosocial Science, 43, 513–533.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Boserup, E. (1985). Economic and demographic interrelationships in sub-Saharan Africa. Population and Development Review, 11, 383–397.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bove, R., & Valeggia, C. (2009). Polygyny and women’s health in sub-Saharan Africa. Social Science & Medicine, 68, 21–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bradley, M. (2004). Cultural configurations of Mormon fundamentalist polygamous communities. Nova Religio, 8, 5–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cahu, P., Falilou, F., & Pongou, R. (Forthcoming). Demographic transition in Africa: The polygamy and fertility nexus. In S. Agyei-Mensah & A. J. Mturi (Eds.), Fertility diversity and its future prospects in Africa.Google Scholar
  13. Caldwell, J. C., & Caldwell, P. (2002). Africa: The new family planning frontier. Studies in Family Planning, 33, 76–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Curtis, S. L., Diamond, I., & McDonald, J. W. (1993). Birth interval and family effects on postneonatal mortality in Brazil. Demography, 30, 33–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Desai, S. (1992). Children at risk: The role of family structure in Latin America and West Africa. The Population and Development Review, 689–717.Google Scholar
  16. Dorjahn, V. R. (1959). The factor of polygyny in African demography. In W. R. Bascom & M. J. Herskovitz (Eds.), Continuity and change in African cultures (pp. 87–112). Chicago, IL: Phoenix Books.Google Scholar
  17. Ezeh, A. C. (1997). Polygyny and reproductive behavior in Sub-Saharan Africa: A contextual analysis. Demography, 34, 355–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fotso, J. C. (2006). Urban-rural differentials in child malnutrition: Trends and socioeconomic correlates in sub-Saharan Africa. International Journal for Equity in Health, 5, 9–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Furuta, M., & Salway, S. (2006). Women’s position within the household as a determinant of maternal health care use in Nepal. International Family Planning Perspectives, 32, 17–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gage, A. J. (1997). Familial and socioeconomic influences on children’s well-being: An examination of preschool children in Kenya. Social Science & Medicine, 45, 1811–1828.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gibson, M. A., & Mace, R. (2007). Polygyny, reproductive success and child health in rural Ethiopia: Why marry a married man? Journal of Biosocial Science, 39, 287–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Goody, J. (1973). Polygyny, economy, and the role of women. In The character of kinship (pp. 175–190). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Gwako, E. L. M. (1998). Polygyny among the Logoli of western Kenya. Anthropos, 93, 331–348.Google Scholar
  24. Gyimah, S. O. (2003). Interaction effects of maternal education and household facilities on childhood diarrhea in sub-Saharan Africa: The case of Ghana. Journal of Health & Population in Developing Countries, 5, 1–17.Google Scholar
  25. Gyimah, S. O. (2009). Polygynous marital structure and child survivorship in sub-Saharan Africa: Some empirical evidence from Ghana. Social Science & Medicine, 68, 334–342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hadley, C. (2005). Is polygyny a risk factor for poor growth performance among Tanzanian agropastoralists? American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 126, 471–480.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hayase, Y., & Liaw, K. L. (1997). Factors on polygamy in sub-Saharan Africa: Findings based on the Demographic and Health Surveys. The Developing Economies, 35, 293–327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hobcraft, J. (2006). The ABC of demographic behaviour: How the interplays of alleles, brains, and contexts over the life course should shape research aimed at understanding population processes. Population studies, 60, 153–187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Jacoby, H. G. (1995). The economics of polygyny in sub-Saharan Africa: Female productivity and the demand for wives in Côte d’Ivoire. Journal of Political Economy, 103, 938–971.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kilbride, P. L., & Kilbride, J. C. (1990). Changing family life in East Africa: Women and children at risk. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Kravdal, Ø. (2002). Education and fertility in sub-Saharan Africa: Individual and community effects. Demography, 39, 233–250.Google Scholar
  32. Kravdal, Ø. (2004). Child mortality in India: The community-level effect of education. Population Studies, 58, 177–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Kravdal, Ø., & Kodzi, I. (2011). Children’s stunting in sub-Saharan Africa: Is there an externality effect of high fertility? Demographic Research, 25(article 18), 565–594. doi: 10.4054/DemRes.2011.25.18 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Lamb, M. E. (2004). The role of the father in child development. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.Google Scholar
  35. Lesthaeghe, R. J. (1989). Reproduction and social organization in sub-Saharan Africa (Vol. 4). Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  36. Lesthaeghe, R. J., Kaufmann, G., & Meekers, D. (1986). The nuptiality regimes in sub-Saharan Africa (IPD Working Paper No. 1986–3). Brussels, Belgium: Interuniversity Programme in Demography, Vrije Universiteit Brussel.Google Scholar
  37. McBride, B. A., & Rane, T. R. (1998). Parenting alliance as a predictor of father involvement: An exploratory study. Family Relations, 47, 229–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Muhsam, H. V. (1956). Fertility of polygamous marriages. Population Studies, 10, 3–16.Google Scholar
  39. Murdock, G. P. (1967). Ethnographic atlas: A summary. Ethnology, 6, 109–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Nyblade, L., & Menken, J. (1993). Husband-wife communication: Mediating the relationship of household structure and polygyny to contraceptive knowledge, attitudes and use. Proceedings of the IUSSP General Conference, Montreal, August 1993 (Vol. 1, pp. 109–120). Liege: IUSSP. Liege, Belgium: IUSSP.Google Scholar
  41. Omariba, D. W. R., Beaujot, R., & Rajulton, F. (2007). Determinants of infant and child mortality in Kenya: An analysis controlling for frailty effects. Population Research and Policy Review, 26, 299–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Omariba, D. W. R., & Boyle, M. H. (2007). Family structure and child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa: Cross-national effects of polygyny. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 528–543.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Pong, S., Dronkers, J., & Hampden-Thompson, G. (2004). Family policies and children’s school achievement in single-versus two-parent families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 681–699.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Raudenbush, S. W., & Bryk, A. S. (2002). Hierarchical linear models: Applications and data analysis methods (Vol. 1). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.Google Scholar
  45. Reniers, G., & Watkins, S. (2010). Polygyny and the spread of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa: A case of benign concurrency. AIDS, 24, 299–307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Sastry, N. (1996). Community characteristics, individual and household attributes, and child survival in Brazil. Demography, 33, 211–229.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Sastry, N. (1997). Family-level clustering of childhood mortality risk in northeast Brazil. Population Studies, 51, 245–261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Sellen, D. W. (1999). Polygyny and child growth in a traditional pastoral society. Human Nature, 10, 329–371.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Solway, J. S. (1990). Affines and spouses, friends and lovers: The passing of polygny in Botswana. Journal of Anthropological Research, 46, 41–66.Google Scholar
  50. Stephenson, R., Baschieri, A., Clements, S., Hennink, M., & Madise, N. (2006). Contextual influences on the use of health facilities for childbirth in Africa. American Journal of Public Health, 96, 84–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Strassman, B. I. (1997). Polygyny as a risk factor for child mortality among the Dogon. Current Anthropology, 38, 688–695.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Timæus, I. M., & Reynar, A. (1998). Polygynists and their wives in sub-Saharan Africa: An analysis of five Demographic and Health Surveys. Population Studies, 52, 145–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Tobias, B. Q. (2001). A descriptive study of the cultural mores and beliefs toward HIV/AIDS in Swaziland, Southern Africa. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 23, 99–113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Ukwuani, F. A., Cornwell, G. T., & Suchindran, C. M. (2002). Polygyny and child survival in Nigeria: Age-dependent effects. Journal of Population Research, 19, 155–171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Van de Poel, E., O’Donnell, O., & Van Doorslaer, E. (2007). Are urban children really healthier? Social Science & Medicine, 65, 1986–2003.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Van de Walle, É. (2006). African households: Censuses and surveys. Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe.Google Scholar
  57. Wang, L. (2003). Determinants of child mortality in LDCs: Empirical findings from Demographic and Health Surveys. Health Policy, 65, 277–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. White, D. R., & Burton, M. L. (1988). Causes of polygyny: Ecology, economy, kinship, and warfare. American Anthropologist, 90, 871–887.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Zeitzen, M. K. (2008). Polygamy: A cross-cultural analysis. Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology, Population Research InstituteThe Pennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA

Personalised recommendations