When is Marriage Harmful to Women?

by David W Lawson

Feature image : A household interview, Mwanza, Tanzania; Credit: David W. Lawson


Over the last decade, my colleagues and I have grappled with the categorization of multiple forms of marriage as definitively costly to women by international development and global health organizations. Chief among these practices are polygynous marriage (sharing a husband with a cowife), ‘child marriage’ (marriage under 18 years), and most recently in our new paper in evolution and human behavior, marriages in which the husband is substantially older than the wife. Each of these phenomena are especially relevant across sub-Saharan Africa where, for example, 40% of girls marry before their 18th birthday.


As an applied anthropologist, I’m immediately wary of ethnocentrism when any practice common in the Global South is categorized as inherently harmful. A widespread tendency to frame these issues through a moralizing lens also raises concern. Plan International’s award winning ‘#stopthewedding’ campaign, for example, presents child marriage as both ‘grotesque’ and demanding of urgent external intervention. Narratives that (over)emphasize the dangers of ‘traditional culture’ can be problematic if they reinforce damaging stereotypes and sideline recognition of broader structural drivers of gender inequality. Anthropologists (and historians) have responded by illustrating the ways in which practices like early marriage may be viewed, not as the product of a morally bankrupt society, but rather rational responses to specific socioeconomic and sociopolitical circumstances.


In this sense, I am also optimistic about the potential contributions of an evolutionary perspective. The polygyny threshold model, for example, suggests that sharing a husband may be beneficial if a man is wealthy enough to provide for multiple wives. A model that receives support in some settings, but not others. And while early marriage has clear potential to be costly (e.g. via elevated risk of early pregnancy), life history theory reminds us that such costs may be tolerated given the benefits of starting a family early when life expectancy is relatively short. Parent-offspring conflict theory may also be useful in understanding why early marriages may be incentivized for parents if not daughters, especially in the context of marriage payments i.e. higher bridewealth or lower dowry for younger brides. Yet, in many cases, early marriage appears driven by female choice (including via elopements against parental will), without clear costs to wellbeing, questioning the notion that women’s agency is restricted. Context is king.


Frankly, without lived experience of societies where such practices are common, let alone the gendered power dynamics of heterosexual marriage and childrearing, I also remain cautious to weigh in on debates about what is good and bad for women. I’ve tried to strike a balance in presenting our research findings as objectively as possible, while being open to rethinking my own assumptions and those of my paradigmatic training. Key here has been a pivot into qualitative methods (spearheaded by Susan Schaffnit), prioritizing the voices of community members deemed at risk, along with collaboration with Tanzanian scholars at the National Institute for Medical Research, especially Mark Urassa, and Joyce Wamoyi.


So, are large spousal age gaps bad for women? Evolutionary psychologists have tended to focus on the mutual benefits of husband-older marriage: with women effectively exchanging youthful fecundity for the wealth and status of senior men. However, even early work in this tradition hints at the limits of this perspective. Kenrick and Keefe for example, report that, while American women find slightly older men attractive at all ages, as men get older they prefer relatively younger and younger women. Such divergent preferences are not mutually compatible.


Surveying Sukuma women living in a rural, but urbanizing community in northern Tanzania, our recent paper provides some potential answers, and raises new questions. Consistent with conflicting preferences, women routinely marry men older than their stated ideals. However, among the large majority married to older men, the age gap did not meaningfully predict self-reported depressive symptomology, autonomy in decision-making (a frequent measure of women’s empowerment), the likelihood of divorce, or reproductive success. While our ability to infer causal relationships is limited with cross-sectional data, these results suggest the magnitude of spousal age differences is of little consequence to women’s wellbeing or fitness – supporting neither a mutual benefits or a sexual conflict model.


Unexpectedly, we also found that marriage to a younger man, a rare arrangement in this community, was associated with relatively poor wellbeing for women. Qualitative findings indicate that such husband-younger marriages are socially shameful; suggesting costs of norm violation along with selection of relatively disadvantaged individuals into atypical marriages. This could come about, for example, if men with otherwise limited marriage prospects partner with older women who themselves are relatively disadvantaged prior to marriage.


These results correspond to our wider findings on polygyny and child marriage, both of which show little evidence of being directly costly to women’s wellbeing, more obviously predicted by factors like access to education and health services. In fact, in past studies we have shown that marrying polygynously is associated with relatively superior child health and food security compared to monogamous marriage; and brides under the age of 18 years report greater decision-making autonomy and community respect than their unmarried peers. As illustrated above, our results also confirm the role of social norms and norm violation in defining feasible options for girls and women. Related research shows that gender norms favoring male authority are represented and reinforced via Sukuma songs about marriage.


On the one hand, knowing that certain marriage practices do not predict poor wellbeing when girls and women are contrasted within a community usefully steers us away from simplistic interventions that might punish the families involved. We have argued, for example, that criminalizing marriage under 18 years may be damaging for female adolescents by limiting options, unless such interventions are also effectively combined with policies addressing the vulnerabilities experienced by those delaying marriage, i.e. exposure to risky sexual behavior, premarital childbearing, and negative social judgements of unmarried women.


Our research cautions against portraying ‘traditional’ marriage practices as the lynchpin, that once unlodged will dismantle patriarchy. But leaves open the possibility that community-wide changes in these practices may nevertheless have positive impacts for women by disrupting wider social norms.


On the other hand, it would be erroneous to imply that our results imply marriage arrangements such as large spousal age gaps are harmless. Critical here is the realization that a girl or woman may opt for a certain marital arrangement as the best available alternative, but the fact that her option set is remarkably limited by wider cultural norms can itself be considered an indirect act of coercion. These instances, perhaps best considered forms of ‘structural violence’, are less often considered within adaptationist frameworks that certainly model sexual conflict, but more often via theorizing about opposing individual optima and emergent strategies, rather than tackling more systemic forms of oppression. The challenge ahead is to disentangle to what extent specific marriage practices are best understood as the product of patriarchal regimes, or themselves a root cause of gender inequality.


Our research cautions against portraying ‘traditional’ marriage practices as the lynchpin, that once unlodged will dismantle patriarchy. But leaves open the possibility that community-wide changes in these practices may nevertheless have positive impacts for women by disrupting wider social norms. We need more social scientists, including evolutionary-minded scholars, with their keen adherence to the importance of context and variation, to apply themselves to these tricky questions. Fundamentally, the question is not if, but when and where, polygyny, early marriage and large spousal age gaps can be harmful to women. We also need to be mindful to make sure that investigation into these sensitive topics is fully inclusive of researchers and communities in the Global South. Above all, as argued recently by Akurugu and colleagues Gender activism needs to be sensitive to contextual norms and respectful of the ‘oppressed’ subjects of ‘liberation”


Read the paper: Lawson DW, Schaffnit SB, Hassan A, & Urassa M. (2021). Shared interests or sexual conflict? Spousal age gap, women’s wellbeing and fertility in rural Tanzania. Evolution and Human Behavior. 42: 165-175