In Rural Gambia, Men's Marital and Reproductive Patterns Differ Sharply from Those of Women

B. Brown, Guttmacher Institute

First published online:

Men and women in rural Gambia have very different fertility patterns, with men becoming fathers later, having more children and doing so later in life than women, according to a study of nearly 3,000 men and women in 21 villages in the Gambia.1During a four-year period, men's total fertility rate was 12.0 lifetime births per man, while women's was 6.8 lifetime births per woman. Men achieved higher fertility than women through serial and polygynous marriages. Among men who gave a specific number, the total mean desired number of children was 15.2 and the total mean desired number of children with each wife was 7.3; the mean desired age at the birth of their last child was 68.

From a set of 40 villages surrounding Farafenni, one of the largest of the Gambia's 15 towns, the researchers identified 21 representative villages, based on size, socioeconomic status, distance from town and ethnic composition. Between February and June 1998, they conducted interviews with 1,315 men aged 18 or older and 1,621 women aged 15-54.

The questionnaires covered marriage and pregnancy history, including infant mortality and current residence of living children, proximate determinants of fertility for women, and marriage and fertility intentions for men. Respondents also were asked the name of the other biological parent for each pregnancy, and men were asked separate questions regarding extramarital relationships and any resulting births. In April 1999, the researchers conducted qualitative interviews with 15 men about their marriage and fertility intentions.

At the time of the interview, men's mean age was 41 and women's was 31. Men reported 1,985 marriages and women reported 1,615. Of the respondents who were married, 40% of men and 54% of women were in polygynous relationships. The men reported 6,152 live births and women reported 5,962. No men younger than 20 reported being responsible for a live birth. Ninety-three percent of currently married women had been pregnant at least once; the mean number of pregnancies among these women was 5.2.

Compared with women, men married and began having children later in life, had more children and had children at later stages in life. For men, the average age at first marriage was 25, and they fathered their first child between ages 20 and 24; for women, the average age at first marriage was 15, and childbearing began between ages 15 and 19.

For the period 1993-1997, the total fertility rate was 12.0 lifetime births per man and 6.8 lifetime births per woman. While women's childbearing peaked between the ages of 25 and 29 and tapered off after age 50, men's fertility peaked between the ages of 45 and 49 and continued through their early 70s. Ten percent of men between ages 60 and 74 were responsible for a birth every year while they were in that age-group. Men reported 1,430 current marriages, 61% of which were polygynous; on average, they had married 2.1 times. Men continued to marry throughout their lives and, based on the total marriage rate, the average man in the sample had three marriages. By the time they were 40-45 years old, almost all of the men had married for the first time. By age 35, more than 20% of the sample had more than one wife, and by age 50, more than half had more than one.

Almost all women in the sample were married by the time they were between ages 25 and 30; by the time women were 30 years old, half had at least one co-wife. Women in polygynous relationships reported an average of 1.3 co-wives.

Thirty-five percent of the men said they would like to marry within one year. When researchers asked men about their desired number of additional children, 36% responded that this number was "up to God"; 23% gave this response when researchers asked them how old they would like to be when their last child was born. Among those who provided specific numbers, the mean number of additional children they desired was 9.1 and their mean desired age at the birth of their last child was 68.

The men had very different expectations for male and female fertility. Researchers asked men about their desire for additional children with each of their wives. The married men who gave a specific number for their own fertility wanted an average of 8.7 more children and an average total of 15.2 children. On average, these men desired each of their wives to have an additional 3.7 children and an average total per wife of 7.3 children.

The subsample of 15 men who participated in the qualitative interviews did not favor trying to limit births or to have a certain number of children because they believed they should welcome the number of children they were given. They also explained that while God grants fertility, marriage is their own responsibility.

The investigators note that men's fertility preferences place a heavy burden on their wives to contribute to their husband's fertility goals and conclude that "men use the vehicle of marriage as the principal means of spreading their reproduction over a wide age range and increasing the total number of their offspring."

According to the researchers, additional studies that include men and examine their reproductive experiences are needed to develop a greater understanding of "how reproduction and reproductive interests are negotiated between the sexes." They also recommend development of policies that would promote reduced fertility goals among men as one way to encourage smaller families in West African countries. In addition, the researchers say that the complex nature of marriage in these societies requires interventions that "consider the circumstances of individuals in the changing contexts of their unions."--B. Brown


1. Ratcliffe AA, Hill AG and Walraven G, Separate lives, different interests: male and female reproduction in the Gambia, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 2000, 78(5):570-579.