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Cultural norms, sexual stigma and infant mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa

Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, University of California, Berkeley

Across sub-Saharan Africa, practices and cultural norms regarding premarital sexuality vary widely. Whereas some groups place high value on bridal virginity, others tolerate or even encourage premarital sexual relationships. These local attitudes may translate into cultural practices that disadvantage children conceived outside of marriage (Laslett et al. 1980). This paper first uses Demographic and Health Survey data from ten sub-Saharan African countries which include data on ethnicity to show that children conceived outside of marriage suffer a greater mortality disadvantage in those African societies where premarital sexuality is more stigmatized. In particular, in highly stigmatizing societies, the mortality disadvantage extends even to children whose mothers married during the pregnancy. Second, the paper uses ethnographic data from Cameroon and Burkina Faso to argue that this demographic phenomenon results from the social marginalization of recent mothers who conceived outside of marriage, rather than from unequal care during pregnancy and delivery.

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Presented in Session 10: Anthropological demography