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Soaring divorce cases and the politics of marriage

By Christine Mungai | May 27th 2017

There is much hand-wringing on the state of the Kenyan family. Divorce and marital breakdown is on the rise.

Today, stories abound of couples that break up on a whim, even before the ink on their marriage certificates has dried. In fact, a recent nationwide survey by Infotrak showed that about three-quarters (74.4 per cent) of respondents said that today’s couples take marriage as a joke.

But what are the longer-term trends? What does the data show, and what is driving these changes?

We analysed data on marital status over the past 20 years, sifting through the past four editions of the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey since 1998, the most comprehensive data trove on family and relationships.

What we found was intriguing. Indeed, the data shows that divorce and separation cases are on the rise.

If you are a woman in your early 40s today, you were aged between 20 and 24 years in 1998. At that time, just 3.4 per cent of your peers were divorced or separated.

But if we take the 2014 edition of the survey, six per cent of women aged 20-24 are already divorced or separated, a proportion almost double from two decades ago.

It gets even more interesting when we track a single age cohort, and see what has happened to their lives. How have marital unions survived or broken down over the years, and what does this tell us about the changing Kenyan society?

Let’s consider those women aged between 20 and 24 in 1998, those who are in their early 40s today. Because women tend to marry men who are slightly older than them, for men, let us consider those aged between 25 and 29 in 1998.

The trends for women and men are clearly divergent. The percentage of women reporting they are divorced or separated rises sharply over the years, almost as if age is the simple factor that predisposes a woman to marital breakdown.

From 3.4 per cent when they were in their early 20s, by the time they are in their early 40s, 11 per cent of women are now either divorced or separated.

But for men, the trend is different. Those men in their late 20s who married their younger girlfriends in 1998 also report a rise in divorce and separation, from 2.4 per cent at age 25-29 to 6.2 per cent by the time they are in their early 30s.

But then, something curious happens with men. The divorce/ separation rates remain flat, such that even in their early to mid 40s, just 6.4 per cent of them are divorced or separated.

Serial male monogamist

What’s going on? Why would there be such a large gap in divorce or separation trends between the two genders? The factor mainly unaccounted for is serial marriage, which is currently more socially acceptable for men than it is for women.

Take an ordinary Kenyan man – let’s call him Peter – who marries his college girlfriend – let’s call her Betty – in his 20s, perhaps only by taking bride price to her parents and having a baby together.

They may live together for a while as husband and wife, but when the marriage breaks down, Betty remains with their child, while Peter goes on to have one more “marriage-like situation” before finally getting married to a third woman in church in his late 30s.

Each of his first two “wives” will be counted as divorced or separated, while he and his current wife report they are married.

It means for every serial male monogamist, there is at least one or two more women whose status is divorced or separated – as long as a woman’s (but not a man’s) marriageability reduces after the breakdown of a relationship.

Though serial monogamy is currently more accessible to men than to women in Kenya, this is not the end of the story. Social attitudes towards remarriage is subject to change, and is more common in societies where women have more financial, social and political rights.


To understand how, it is useful to trace the evolution of various dominant forms of marriage, and their relationship to political economy. Whether a society chooses its marriage institutions to be polygynous (men simultaneously marrying multiple women), strictly monogamous or tolerant of serial monogamy (divorce and remarriage for both men and women) is rational and predictable, and has much to do with the social and political economy of the day.

A seminal May 2012 academic paper by David de la Croix and Fabio Mariani titled From Polygyny to Serial Monogamy: A Unified Theory of Marriage Institutions describes this mechanism of change.

It is unclear whether the earliest human societies were polygamous or monogamous. But what is uncontested is that as soon as there was an economic imperative, the most powerful and wealthy men aimed to have as many wives as possible and enjoyed much higher reproductive success than their poorer male counterparts, hapless souls who were more often expended as warriors.

Anthropologist George P Murdoch documented 1,231 pre-modern societies in his 1965 ethnographic atlas, of which 186 were monogamous, 1,041 were polygynous to some degree, and just four were polyandrous (where a woman could have multiple husbands).

If a society has a few rich men and virtually no rich women, polygyny would be supported by a coalition of both rich men and virtually all women.

The wealthy men can naturally monopolise a large number of partners, and women (who are almost all poor, relative to men) “would prefer to be the n-th wife of a rich man than marry a poor man monogamously”, de la Croix and Mariani argue.

The cost for women, in this set-up, is jealousy and competition for resources between co-wives, but women would rather endure the bickering than be destitute. It is a rational choice.

In this kind of society, poor men would have limited chances of reproductive success and are more likely to die young and childless.

No longer feasible

As society grows richer more broadly, however, male inequality slowly decreases, until the trade-off between sexual exclusivity and access to resources is no longer feasible for women, and monogamy emerges.

Whatever a woman would gain by being the fifth wife of a rich man is too small to be justified when you consider the pain of sharing everything with four other women, and in any case you can have some moderate prosperity with just one exclusive husband.

The rise of monogamy might also have been a male compromise, whereby rich men agreed to monogamy to avoid the threat of rebellion – although low status men lacked formal voting rights, they retain some de facto political power through the threat of revolution or refusing to work. T

hus monogamy emerged, de la Croix and Mariani argue, as a “coalition” between lower status men, and women, created by rising social prosperity. It reduced conflict and made societies more stable – everyone was better off.

Socially imposed monogamy could also be driven externally by an institution wanting to break the power of rich men – as happened in the Middle Ages when the Church ecclesiastical authorities wanted to combat the power of the aristocracy, and succeeded in doing so by limiting the aristocracy’s reproductive monopoly.

The Church represented the interests of women and poor men, one could argue, and after the decline of ecclesiastical control in England, women – fearing that divorce would result in desertion and economic loss – acted as an interest group favouring the maintenance of anti-divorce customs.

Serial monogamy is the third stage in this political-social change. Once there are universal political rights, reasonable economic opportunities for most, and the status of women rises significantly, serial monogamy becomes the norm.

Male inequality is even smaller in this kind of society, there are no chiefs and kings to monopolise everything. And with rising education, health and economic opportunities for women, the risk of staying in a bad monogamous set-up for life is much higher than ending a relationship.

Bounce back

A woman today might be financially impacted by a divorce, but most will not be entirely destitute, they can bounce back. And for men, there is almost no social consequence of divorce and remarriage. Therefore the rise in serial monogamy – divorce and remarriage as shown in the DHS data – should not be interpreted as a sneaky, temporary form of polygamy, whereby men have multiple (though not simultaneous) relationships with women.

It emerges from a whole other different set of factors, and is really the marker of a wealthier society with more political opportunities for everyone, the researchers argue.

When economic opportunities become widespread enough for most people in society, serial monogamy becomes more widespread as it offers the chance for material accumulation, and – for women especially – the chance to start afresh if a marriage goes awry.

De la Croix and Mariani’s intriguing mathematical models show that polygamy is the least attractive option for both women and men; strict monogamy has high benefits but also high costs, whereas serial monogamy becomes more common when women are only moderately dependent on men and fathers offer some investment in children, but with little male variation – by abolishing all-powerful chiefs and kings, democracy reduces the inequality between men.

- The writer is executive editor of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Africapedia.com

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