Child marriage, bridewealth and legal pluralism in Africa

Authors Jane C. Diala, Anthony C. Diala

ISSN: 2521-2605
Affiliations: None; Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for Comparative Law in Africa, University of Cape Town
Source: Journal of Comparative Law in Africa, Volume 4 Issue 2, p. 77 – 104


As a widespread practice, child marriage has defied legislation in most sub- Saharan African countries. Is there a link between this defiance and distortions of the meaning of bridewealth? In its original sense, bridewealth functioned as the legitimating sign of marriage, a pledge that the bride will be well treated and a figurative recognition of her fecundity and worth to her community. Today, economic stratification and other socio-economic changes have commercialised bridewealth payment. This article draws a causal link between the distortion of bridewealth payment and the persistence of child marriage in Africa. Arguably, this persistence questions the influence of State law on normative behaviour in social fields. The article locates this argument in the disconnection between State law and people’s cultural practices, a notable feature of legal pluralism in post-colonial societies. While legislation remains important in campaigns against child marriage, policy makers should be mindful of its limitations in the face of customary law and socio-economic realities. Accordingly, anti-child marriage campaigns should aim to educate role players in child marriage and, generally, recognise the close link between early marriage, high bridewealth and normative interaction.