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Impact Of Westernization

Westernization, or the adoption of ideas and lifestyles from the developed world, is the major A Senegalese family shares a meal together on the Ile de Goree. Western influence, spread mainly through education and the mass media, is affecting the marriage patterns of the Senegalese, but endogamy and polygamy are still widely practiced. OWEN FRANKEN/CORBIS factor that has been reshaping the characteristics of Senegalese marriage systems. Westernization is diffused mainly through education, urbanization, and the mass media. New ideas publicizing the benefits of small families and late marriage, and those condemning polygamy, are major channels for change. Progress in education for women and rural-to-urban migration sustain these sociocultural shifts.

Since the mid-1970s, when the first nationally representative demographic and health data became available, the social norm of universal marriage has been progressively fading. In the late 1970s, national surveys showed that about 13 percent of women aged fifteen to forty-nine years were not married. This percentage increased to 19 percent in the late 1980s and has been estimated at 25 percent during the early 1990s (Ndiaye et al. 1997). This clear indication of lower values attached to marriage is corroborated by a rise in the age at first marriage. While the 1978 national World Fertility Survey yielded a median age at first marriage of sixteen years, the corresponding figure from the 1997 national Demographic and Health Survey was eighteen years. These surveys do not show a marked downward trend in polygamy rates. However, there is a reason to believe that ongoing societal changes are working against the practice of polygamy, as suggested by a landmark official report that concluded that "polygamy is considered by educated women as being a barrier to their social aspirations" (République du Sénégal 1981, p. 81). Women's protests over polygamy are also reflected in the high divorce rates of first wives when their husbands marry a second wife. Philippe Antoine and colleagues (1998) provide evidence of this using retrospective survey data collected in Dakar in 1989.

Changes in marriage patterns in Senegal are also visible in the large differentials observed in the late 1990s between urban and rural areas, and between educated and noneducated women (Ndiaye et al. 1997). High polygamy and endogamy rates and early age at first marriage are more prevalent among rural and less-educated women.

Almost half of marriages in rural areas are endogamous, compared to 28 percent in urban areas. With respect to educational levels, the percentage of endogamous marriages decreases from 44 percent among women with no formal education to 26 percent among those with primary schooling. It then falls to 18 percent for women who have reached secondary school.

The polygamy rates exhibit the same patterns; half of married uneducated women live in polygamous unions, against one fourth for those with at least secondary school education. But the difference in polygamy rates between urban (40%) and rural areas (50%) is not substantial.

In rural areas, girls marry on average at sixteen years of age; the corresponding figure for urban areas is twenty years. The largest effect on age at first marriage remains formal schooling; women with no education and those with at least secondary education first marry at sixteen and twenty-three years, respectively.

The transition to late age at marriage and lower levels of polygamy and endogamy is irreversible given rising levels of urbanization and female education. This modern feature of Senegalese marriage systems will loosen the strength of kinship ties, facilitate the spread of the nuclear family, and thus hasten the emergence of a more individualistic society.

See also: ISLAM


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Ndiaye, K. L. (1985). "Polygamy et fécondité." In Nuptialité et fécondité au Sénégal, ed. Y. Charbit and S. Ndiaye. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

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République du Sénégal (1981). EnquÍte sénégalaise sur la fécondité, 1978 : Rapport national d'analyse. Dakar: Ministère de l'Economie et des Finances, Direction de la Statistique.

Sow, F. (1985). "Muslim Families in Contemporary Black Africa." Current Anthropology 26(5):563–570.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsSenegal - Entry Into Union, Endogamy, Polygamy, Impact Of Westernization