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Happily married? For young Africans, it depends on your community

child marriage

People marry for money, land, security, better job prospects, an extra pair of hands, perhaps love. Marriage means different things in different places but the difference can hardly be more stark than in Malawi and Lesotho.


Early marriage is spotlighted by international aid organisations campaigning for women’s and girl’s rights. But why young people choose to wed early is little understood.


Researchers who spoke to 10-24 year-olds in two villages  one in rural Lesotho, where women move in with their in-laws when they marry, and the other in Southern Malawi where men move to live with their wives. They found glaring differences in why young people marry, the age they marry and each partner’s duties and rights. And the contrasts depend on the community.


Poverty drives most young women in Malawi to marry. Many admitted marrying men they didn’t want to, simply to get food. “I wanted to stay with mum, but she was swearing at me saying I should marry as she had been feeding me a long time,” said Limnile. “I had nowhere to run, so I married that husband.”


But in patriarchal Lesotho, young women think marriage makes them poorer. “The young unmarried Lesotho girls said married women are miserable,” said study leader Nicola Ansell at Brunel University London.


“Most men round here don’t work, so it becomes difficult to eat,” said Nyefolo, who said she’d sooner be a nun than a wife.


Most Malawian women said marriage was the happiest time of their life. “Almost universally, they were pleased to have married and felt their lives had improved as a consequence,” said Nicola. “Even Limnile was positive about it.” Many said they had more to eat and more to wear.


With fewer husbands finding mining jobs, women in Lesotho felt marriage made them feel poorer. “In absolute terms, the Basotho women were probably better off than their Malawian peers, but their husbands could not live up to expectations,” Nicola said.


In both villages, young men value the extra help with chores, and help looking after elderly family they expect marriage to bring. Bakoena wanted “someone to help my grandmother in her home”. Letsema said “I have a lot of work so it will be easier with someone to help because my parents are getting older.”


Regardless of their reasons to marry, young people in both villages see marriage as an expectation rather than choice. Makwete said: “I married because I have grown up. I am supposed to find a wife.” Limnile said: “Here, if you are not married, people think of you as a prostitute.”


Aid organisations and global policy makers must understand “marriage is highly contextual and culturally specific,” Nicola urges. They need to note these nuances “before pressing for universal policies based on Western ideals, particularly where poverty and rural life are not considered.”

Reported by:

Hayley Jarvis, Media Relations
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