Entry Into Union
As in most sub-Saharan African societies, marriage in Senegal involves more than only the bride and groom, but also their families and kinships. It is a multistage process generally sealed with the payment of dowry in the form of cash, cattle, and other goods of a symbolic nature. Often, however, dowry payment may be made by installments before and after the spouses have started living together (Meekers 1992). In low-income families, such as those living in rural Senegal, dowry payment may involve saving over several years on cash earned from farming activities. With irregularities in rainfall, many young males from rural areas migrate to town to search for employment opportunities that would allow them to meet rising dowry levels.
Marriage is almost universal in Senegal. All nationally representative demographic surveys conducted since the 1980s have consistently shown that more than 90 percent of women get married by the age of fifty. Less than 1 percent of women remain single by the time they are fifty years old (Ndiaye et al. 1997).
Women usually enter marriage at a young age. The median age at first marriage for the late 1990s was estimated at eighteen years, which means that more than half of the women within the reproductive ages (fifteen to forty-nine years) marry by the time they are eighteen years of age (Ndiaye et al. 1997). In certain ethnic groups such as the Tukuler and Peulh of North and East Senegal, parents often give away their daughters for marriage when they are as young as eight to twelve. In such instances, sexual intercourse may occur several years after the marriage has been celebrated. This practice of early marriage is sustained by the need to reduce financial burden on the family (through dowry for the bride's family), strengthen ties between the families involved, and ensure that the young bride is a virgin.
The age gaps between husbands and wives is usually large. An in-depth study of the Senegalese marriage market shows that, on average, husbands are eight years older than their wives (Diop 1980). Given that younger generations in developing countries such as Senegal are always larger than the older ones, the age gaps imply that the number of potential brides is always larger than the number of grooms. These mismatches sustain the practice of endogamy and polygamy because celibacy is not socially accepted.