Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Parent–offspring conflict unlikely to explain ‘child marriage’ in northwestern Tanzania


Approximately 40% of women in sub-Saharan Africa marry before their eighteenth birthday1. Within the international development sector, this phenomenon is referred to as ‘child marriage’, widely equated to forced marriage, and recognized as damaging to multiple dimensions of female well-being1,2. An escalating global campaign to end early marriage typically assumes that its high prevalence is driven by a conflict of interests between parents and daughters, with parents coercing daughters to marry early for the parents’ economic benefit3. However, a parent–offspring conflict model of early marriage has not been explicitly tested. Here we present a study of marriage transitions in rural Tanzania, where marriage before or just after 18 years of age is normative. Consistent with parental coercion, we find that bridewealth transfers are highest for younger brides. However, autonomy in partner choice is very common at all ages, relationships between age at marriage and female well-being are largely equivocal, and women who marry early achieve relatively higher reproductive success. We conclude that, in contexts in which adolescents have autonomy in marriage choices and in which marriage promotes economic and social security, early marriage may be better understood as serving the strategic interests of both parents and daughters.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Marital timing and parental benefits.
Fig. 2: Marital timing and women’s well-being.
Fig. 3: Marital timing and women’s fertility.

Data availability

The data that support the findings in this study are available from the corresponding author and the NIMR, Tanzania, on request.


  1. Hodgkinson, K. Understanding and Addressing Child Marriage: A Scoping Study of Available Academic and Programmatic Literature for the Her Choice Alliance (AISSR, 2016).

  2. New Global Estimates of Child Marriage (UNICEF, 2018).

  3. Why Does Child Marriage Happen? (Girls Not Brides, 2018).

  4. Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development A/RES/70/1 (United Nations, 2015).

  5. Raj, A. When the mother is a child: the impact of child marriage on the health and human rights of girls. Arch. Dis. Child. 95, 931–935 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Marphatia, A. A., Ambale, G. S. & Reid, A. M. Women’s marriage age matters for public health: a review of the broader health and social implications in South Asia. Front. Public Health 5, 1–23 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Raj, A. & Boehmer, U. Girl child marriage and its association with national rates of HIV, maternal health, and infant mortality across 97 countries. Violence Against Women 19, 536–551 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Hart, J. Saving children: what role for anthropology? Anthropol. Today 22, 5–8 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Boyden, J., Pankhurst, A. & Tafere, Y. Child protection and harmful traditional practices: female early marriage and genital modification in Ethiopia. Dev. Pract. 22, 510–522 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Dixon-Mueller, R. How young is “too young”? comparative perspectives on adolescent sexual, marital, and reproductive transitions. Stud. Fam. Plann. 39, 247–262 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Trivers, R. L. Parent–offspring conflict. Am. Zool. 14, 249–264 (1974).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. van den Berg, P., Fawcett, T. W., Buunk, A. P. & Weissing, F. J. The evolution of parent–offspring conflict over mate choice. Evol. Hum. Behav. 34, 405–411 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Apostolou, M. Parent–offspring conflict over mating: domains of agreement and disagreement. Evol. Psychol. 13, 1–12 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Weissner, P. in Pattern and Process in Cultural Evolution (ed. Shennan, S.) 251–263 (Univ. California Press, Berkeley, 2009).

  15. Child marriage. UNFPA (2018).

  16. Child protection from violence, exploitation, and abuse: child marriage. UNICEF (2018).

  17. Nour, N. M. Health consequences of child marriage in Africa. Emerg. Infect. Dis. 12, 1644–1649 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Corno, L. & Voena, A. Selling Daughters: Age of Marriage, Income Shocks and the Bride Price Tradition (IFS, 2016).

  19. Mtengeti, K. S., Jackson, E., Masabo, J., William, A. & Mghamba, G. Report on Child Marriage Survey Conducted in Dar es Salaam, Coastal, Mwanza and Mara Regions (Children’s Dignity Forum, 2008).

  20. Archambault, C. S. Ethnographic empathy and the social context of rights: “rescuing” Maasai girls from early marriage. Am. Anthropol. 113, 632–643 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Stark, L. Poverty, consent, and choice in early marriage: ethnographic perspectives from urban Tanzania. Marriage Fam. Rev. 54, 565–581 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Stark, L. Early marriage and cultural constructions of adulthood in two slums in Dar es Salaam. Cult. Health Sex. 20, 888–901 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Kishamawe, C. et al. Health & Demographic Surveillance System profile: the Magu Health and Demographic Surveillance System (Magu HDSS). Int. J. Epidemiol. 44, 1851–1861 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Child Marriage Fact Sheet: Marrying Too Young, End Child Marriage in Tanzania (UNFPA, 2014).

  25. Boerma, J. T. et al. Sociodemographic context of the AIDS epidemic in a rural area in Tanzania with a focus on people’s mobility and marriage. Sex. Transm. Infect. 78, 97–105 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Buunk, A. P., Park, J. H. & Duncan, L. A. Cultural variation in parental influence on mate choice. Cross Cult. Res. 44, 23–40 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Schaffnit, S. B., Urassa, M. & Lawson, D. W. ‘Child marriage’ in context: exploring local attitudes towards early marriage in rural Tanzania Reprod. Health Matters (in the press).

  28. Wight, D. et al. Contradictory sexual norms and expectations for young people in rural northern Tanzania. Soc. Sci. Med. 62, 987–997 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Hoogeveen, J., van der Klaauw, B. & van Lomwel, G. On the timing of marriage, cattle, and shocks. Econ. Dev. Cult. Change 60, 121–154 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Chowdhury, A. R. Money and marriage: the practice of dowry and brideprice in rural India. Population Association of America 2010 Annual Meeting Program (2010).

  31. Conroy-Beam, D. & Buss, D. M. Why is age so important in human mating? Evolved age preferences and their influences on multiple mating behaviors. Evol. Behav. Sci.

  32. Urrio, L. I., Mtengeti, K., Jackson, E. & Mghamba, G. Peer Research Report on Child Marriage in Tarime District, Mara Region, Tanzania (Children’s Dignity Forum and FORWARD UK, 2009).

  33. Warria, A. Forced child marriages as a form of child trafficking. Child. Youth Serv. Rev. 79, 274–279 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Wamoyi, J., Fenwick, A., Urassa, M., Zaba, B. & Stones, W. Socio-economic change and parent–child relationships: implications for parental control and HIV prevention among young people in rural north western Tanzania. Cult. Health Sex. 13, 615–628 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Marrying Too Young—End Child Marriage (UNFPA, 2012).

  36. Nettle, D. Dying young and living fast: variation in life history across English neighborhoods. Behav. Ecol. 21, 387–395 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Kramer, K. L. & Lancaster, J. B. Teen motherhood in cross-cultural perspective. Ann. Hum. Biol. 37, 613–628 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Jones, J. H. & Bird, R. B. The marginal valuation of fertility. Evol. Hum. Behav. 35, 65–71 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Kidman, R. Child marriage and intimate partner violence: a comparative study of 34 countries. Int. J. Epidemiol. 46, 662–675 (2017).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  40. Shapiro, D. & Gebreselassie, T. Marriage in sub-Saharan Africa: trends, determinants, and consequences. Popul. Res. Policy Rev. 33, 229–255 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Delprato, M., Akyeampong, K., Sabates, R. & Hernandez-Fernandez, J. On the impact of early marriage on schooling outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa and South West Asia. Int. J. Educ. Dev. 44, 42–55 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Arai, L. Teenage Pregnancy: the Making and Unmaking of a Problem (Policy Press, Bristol, UK, 2009).

  43. Lawson, D. W. et al. No evidence that polygynous marriage is a harmful cultural practice in northern Tanzania. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 13827–13832 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Petroni, S., Steinhaus, M., Fenn, N. S., Stoebenau, K. & Gregowski, A. New findings on child marriage in sub-Saharan Africa. Ann. Glob. Health 83, 781–790 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Ganchimeg, T. et al. Pregnancy and childbirth outcomes among adolescent mothers: a World Health Organization multicountry study. BJOG 121, 40–48 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Gage, A. J. Association of child marriage with suicidal thoughts and attempts among adolescent girls in Ethiopia. J. Adolesc. Health 52, 654–656 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Lee-Rife, S. M. Women’s empowerment and reproductive experiences over the lifecourse. Soc. Sci. Med. 71, 634–642 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Hadley, C. & Patil, C. L. Food insecurity in rural Tanzania is associated with maternal anxiety and depression. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 18, 359–368 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Women’s Empowerment—Multidimensional Evaluation of Agency, Social Capital & Relations (WE‐ MEASR): A Tool to Measure Women’s Empowerment in Sexual, Reproductive and Maternal Health Programs (CARE, 2008).

Download references


We thank the directors of the NIMR, Mwanza, study participants and our fieldwork team: M. Malyawere, J. Mbata, P. Muyanja, R. Dotto, H. Dick, C. John, I. Sengerema, S. Kituku and C. Joseph. Thank you also to S. Hedges, J. Todd and R. Sear for practical assistance and constructive criticism on our research design, and T. Kraft and M. Gurven for helpful comments on early versions of this manuscript. This research was funded by the University of California, Santa Barbara. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



D.W.L. and S.B.S. conceptualized and designed the study. S.B.S., A.H., D.W.L. and M.U. collected the data. S.B.S. conducted the data analysis. S.B.S. and D.W.L. wrote the manuscript. A.H. and M.U. contributed to editing the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Susan B. Schaffnit.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Schaffnit, S.B., Hassan, A., Urassa, M. et al. Parent–offspring conflict unlikely to explain ‘child marriage’ in northwestern Tanzania. Nat Hum Behav 3, 346–353 (2019).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing