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Economic constraints of why few African women marry

- Deborah Minors

Professor Dorrit (Dori) Posel holds the Helen Suzman Chair in Political Economics at Wits.

Posel is an applied economist who analyses quantitative micro-data. She uses these micro-data to understand economic behaviour in and across households and the labour market, and to evaluate the ways in which we measure well-being.

Her research over the past eight years has explored marriage and union formation in South Africa to understand the reasons for – and implications of – low marriage rates, particularly among African women.

The research is distinctive in that it combines the econometric analysis of micro-data, which reveals economic constraints to marriage, with the collection and analysis of qualitative data to probe why these economic constraints are binding, particularly in the context of bride-wealth practices.

“Low marriage rates have not been offset by rising rates of co-habitation, and low rates of union formation, even in the context of childbirth, help to explain why the majority of African children grow up in households without their fathers,” says Posel.

For many South Africans, the nuclear family is not the dominant social unit. Rather, people live in complex and often multi-generational households with permeable boundaries.

Posel’s other projects explore:

  • the private transfer of resources between households (remittances and maintenance payments)
  • how one compares economic resources across households of diverse size and structure
  • whether the allocation of time in the household differs among women and men, even in complex households.

“The research shows that although private transfers are an important source of income for the household, social grants (or public transfers) contribute significantly more to poverty reduction," says Posel.

Furthermore, the research suggests that the measure of inequality in South Africa would decline by up to six percentage points if we adjusted for large differences in household size and composition, and that a traditional gender division of labour persists in all household types in South Africa, even amongst the elderly.