Child Marriage, Adolescent Pregnancy and Family Formation in West and Central Africa - Patterns, Trends and Drivers of Change

“Of the 15 countries where the rate of child marriage is over 30 percent, nine are in West and Central Africa, with Niger having the highest rates in the world. The West and Central Africa region also has the highest adolescent birth rates in the world, at close to 200 births per 1,000 girls. Accompanying these patterns are high levels of poverty among adolescents, high levels of school dropout, particularly among girls, and low use of reproductive health services.”

Conducted by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) West and Central Africa in partnership with the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), this study seeks to identify the core drivers of child marriage and adolescent pregnancy in West and Central Africa, as well as to assess the levels, trends, and relationships between child marriage and adolescent pregnancy in the region. As explained in the study report, “[D]espite increasing attention and programmatic efforts to address child marriage and adolescent pregnancy in West and Central Africa in recent years, little has been done to identify what factors lead to changes in attitudes and behaviours”. The study therefore seeks to address this gap by using “region-specific research as a platform from which to understand the factors that lead to decreases in child marriage and adolescent pregnancy. In contrast to much of the prior research conducted in the region, this study places these specific events within the context of the broader family formation process, viewing marriage and childbearing as related events linked by broader social norms and behavioral patterns that govern how and when young men and women form families.”

The report is composed of six parts. Part One introduces the research’s objectives and definitions. Part Two presents a literature review on child marriage in the context of the traditional family system and the broader cultural forces in Africa. Part Three describes the conceptual framework used and how it influenced the study’s methodology. It then explores in detail the methodology used to explore the research questions, with an in-depth look at the quantitative approach used to identify the relationship between child marriage, adolescent childbearing, and sexual activity. Part Four utilises nationally representative quantitative data for each of the countries in the region to explore the levels, trends, and interrelationships between child marriage, adolescent childbearing, and adolescent sexual activity. Part Five includes three case-study countries for which sub-national data is used to explore regional variations in marriage, childbearing, and sexual activity, namely, Senegal, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Finally, Part Six concludes the report by reflecting on the findings and suggesting some general recommendations for programmers and policymakers and more specific recommendations for further research on understanding the drivers of child marriage and the social norms that promote or prevent the practice.

The following are just a selection of some of the key findings (as extracted from the executive summary):

  • Overall, the findings show that there is considerable variation of patterns and trends in the three key processes examined: marriage, childbearing, and sexual activity.
  • The study confirms that child marriage is strongly associated with longer-term behaviours that may adversely affect the health of girls and women – specifically, being a child bride in the region is associated with lower use of modern contraception, higher fertility, and a greater likelihood of being in a polygamous union.
  • Young women aged 20-24 in nearly all countries are more likely to have sex, birth, and marriage before age 18 if they have no education, live in a rural area, and are poorer.
  • However, the strength of the associations with no education, rural residence, and poverty is weaker for adolescent sexual activity and childbearing than for child marriage.
  • Compared to other regions, particularly South Asia, adolescent sexual activity (as measured by first sexual intercourse) in West and Central Africa is less closely coupled with marriage. A large proportion of sexual activity in the region takes place prior to marriage, particularly in West Africa.
  • Two suggested family formation typologies emerge from the data: in the first, girls’ marriage and first sexual activity are closely linked, with the median ages for each being within 13 months of each other (broadly close enough in terms of time to be regarded as being part of the same process). In the second they are not, with sexual activity taking place over a year before marriage.
  • Girls experience sexual intercourse for the first time around the same age, irrespective of typology. However, on average, girls in type 1 countries marry almost two years earlier and give birth more than six months earlier than their counterparts in type 2 countries.
  • Those countries where sexual activity and marriage are closely tied (type 1 countries) have higher child marriage rates than countries where this linkage is weaker, and the rates of change in marriage age in type 1 countries are, on average, slower than those for type 2 countries. By implication, it is likely that efforts to raise girls’ age at marriage will also increase the age at which they first have intercourse in type 1 countries, while this would not be the case for type 2 countries.

Based on the findings, the report also looks at the implications for research and programming on child marriage. The following two recommendations, in particular, relate to the nuanced and variable findings across the region:

  • Child marriage should be approached as part of a broader and dynamic process of family formation that is affected by deep demographic, economic, and sociocultural changes. The quantitative data captures this complexity by stressing the nuanced relationship between economic insecurity, education, and the timing of marriage, and how they affect family relationships differently in a rural and urban settings. Researchers should therefore focus on developing a clearer understanding of the complex social interactions between these factors to understand better the ways that these relationships play out in different contexts and what the implications are for programmes and policies.
  • These nuanced findings, coupled with the identification of two distinct ‘types’ of family formation patterns in the region, stress the importance of context and of developing locally contextualised interventions that build both on an understanding of family formation and on how the latter is being affected by social change in that particular setting. Specifically, the findings suggest that the linkage between marriage and sexual behaviour is in flux throughout the region. Interventions designed to address the needs of adolescents in this region, including those designed to delay marriage and childbearing, should ‘meet them where they are’ in terms of their situation and needs.

Click here to download the 8-page Executive Summary.

Click here to download the French version of this report in PDF format.

Network Contacts: International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) - Publications UNICEF Publications

Network Contacts: International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) - Publications UNICEF Publications


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