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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
The data that support the findings in this study are available from the corresponding author and the NIMR, Tanzania, on request.
Hodgkinson, K. Understanding and Addressing Child Marriage: A Scoping Study of Available Academic and Programmatic Literature for the Her Choice Alliance (AISSR, 2016).
New Global Estimates of Child Marriage (UNICEF, 2018).
Why Does Child Marriage Happen? https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/why-does-it-happen (Girls Not Brides, 2018).
Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development A/RES/70/1 (United Nations, 2015).
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).
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).
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).
Hart, J. Saving children: what role for anthropology? Anthropol. Today 22, 5–8 (2006).
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).
Dixon-Mueller, R. How young is “too young”? comparative perspectives on adolescent sexual, marital, and reproductive transitions. Stud. Fam. Plann. 39, 247–262 (2008).
Trivers, R. L. Parent–offspring conflict. Am. Zool. 14, 249–264 (1974).
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).
Apostolou, M. Parent–offspring conflict over mating: domains of agreement and disagreement. Evol. Psychol. 13, 1–12 (2015).
Weissner, P. in Pattern and Process in Cultural Evolution (ed. Shennan, S.) 251–263 (Univ. California Press, Berkeley, 2009).
Child marriage. UNFPA https://www.unfpa.org/child-marriage (2018).
Child protection from violence, exploitation, and abuse: child marriage. UNICEF https://www.unicef.org/protection/57929_58008.html (2018).
Nour, N. M. Health consequences of child marriage in Africa. Emerg. Infect. Dis. 12, 1644–1649 (2006).
Corno, L. & Voena, A. Selling Daughters: Age of Marriage, Income Shocks and the Bride Price Tradition (IFS, 2016).
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).
Archambault, C. S. Ethnographic empathy and the social context of rights: “rescuing” Maasai girls from early marriage. Am. Anthropol. 113, 632–643 (2011).
Stark, L. Poverty, consent, and choice in early marriage: ethnographic perspectives from urban Tanzania. Marriage Fam. Rev. 54, 565–581 (2018).
Stark, L. Early marriage and cultural constructions of adulthood in two slums in Dar es Salaam. Cult. Health Sex. 20, 888–901 (2018).
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).
Child Marriage Fact Sheet: Marrying Too Young, End Child Marriage in Tanzania (UNFPA, 2014).
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).
Buunk, A. P., Park, J. H. & Duncan, L. A. Cultural variation in parental influence on mate choice. Cross Cult. Res. 44, 23–40 (2010).
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).
Wight, D. et al. Contradictory sexual norms and expectations for young people in rural northern Tanzania. Soc. Sci. Med. 62, 987–997 (2006).
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).
Chowdhury, A. R. Money and marriage: the practice of dowry and brideprice in rural India. Population Association of America 2010 Annual Meeting Program https://paa2010.princeton.edu/abstracts/100225 (2010).
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. https://doi.org/10.1037/ebs0000127(2018).
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).
Warria, A. Forced child marriages as a form of child trafficking. Child. Youth Serv. Rev. 79, 274–279 (2017).
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).
Marrying Too Young—End Child Marriage (UNFPA, 2012).
Nettle, D. Dying young and living fast: variation in life history across English neighborhoods. Behav. Ecol. 21, 387–395 (2010).
Kramer, K. L. & Lancaster, J. B. Teen motherhood in cross-cultural perspective. Ann. Hum. Biol. 37, 613–628 (2010).
Jones, J. H. & Bird, R. B. The marginal valuation of fertility. Evol. Hum. Behav. 35, 65–71 (2014).
Kidman, R. Child marriage and intimate partner violence: a comparative study of 34 countries. Int. J. Epidemiol. 46, 662–675 (2017).
Shapiro, D. & Gebreselassie, T. Marriage in sub-Saharan Africa: trends, determinants, and consequences. Popul. Res. Policy Rev. 33, 229–255 (2014).
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).
Arai, L. Teenage Pregnancy: the Making and Unmaking of a Problem (Policy Press, Bristol, UK, 2009).
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).
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).
Ganchimeg, T. et al. Pregnancy and childbirth outcomes among adolescent mothers: a World Health Organization multicountry study. BJOG 121, 40–48 (2014).
Gage, A. J. Association of child marriage with suicidal thoughts and attempts among adolescent girls in Ethiopia. J. Adolesc. Health 52, 654–656 (2013).
Lee-Rife, S. M. Women’s empowerment and reproductive experiences over the lifecourse. Soc. Sci. Med. 71, 634–642 (2010).
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).
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).
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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
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). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0535-4
He for she? Variation and exaggeration in men's support for women's empowerment in northern Tanzania
Evolutionary Human Sciences (2021)
Shared interests or sexual conflict? Spousal age gap, women's wellbeing and fertility in rural Tanzania
Evolution and Human Behavior (2021)
PLOS ONE (2020)
Demographic Research (2019)
Evolutionary Human Sciences (2019)