In Nigeria, Migrant Youth Are More Likely Than Others to Have Had Sex

P. Doskoch

First published online:

Nigerian youth who have migrated to a rural area, whether from an urban region or another rural site, are more likely than nonmigrants to have had premarital sex, a recent study suggests.1 In a national sample of unmarried 15–24-year-olds, 46% of migrants to rural areas reported having had sex, compared with 30–32% of rural and urban nonmigrants. In multivariate analyses, migrants to rural areas, whether from urban locations or rural ones, had 20% higher odds of having had premarital sex than did rural non-migrants (odds ratios, 1.2 for each). Religion, ethnicity and education were also associated with having had sex before marriage.

Studies from a variety of developing and developed countries have found elevated rates of risky sexual behavior among migrants. A variety of explanations have been suggested for these findings, including individual characteristics (migrants may be prone to risky behavior), separation from partners and exposure to less restrictive social norms. Some evidence has implicated migrants in fostering the spread of HIV in parts of Africa.

To explore the relationship between migration and sexual behavior, researchers analyzed data from the nationally representative 2008 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey. The investigators focused on responses from 10,865 unmarried males and females aged 15–24, as these youth are more likely than their married peers to experience undesirable outcomes from sex. Survey respondents provided a wide range of demographic and behavioral information. Responses to questions on current and previous places of residence were used to classify respondents into six groups: two nonmigrant categories (rural and urban) and four migrant categories (rural–rural, rural–urban, urban–rural and urban–urban). If a participant had lived in three or more places, only the two most recent were used for the migration classification. Respondents also indicated whether they had ever had sex and, if so, their age at initiation. Other key variables included gender, educational attainment, religious affiliation (Catholic, other Christian, Muslim or other), employment (formally employed, self-employed or unemployed), wealth (categorized into quintiles on the basis of household possessions), ethnicity (the country's 169 ethnic groups were classified into six major categories) and media exposure.

In addition to compiling descriptive statistics, the researchers performed discrete-time hazard regression analyses to identify predictors of premarital sex. Each year of a respondent's life from age 10 to 24 (up to and including the year of sexual debut) was treated as a separate event; thus, a respondent who had had sex for the first time at age 17 provided eight person-years of data—seven without sexual initiation and one with it. Overall, the researchers analyzed 91,354 person-years of data.

At the time of the survey, respondents had a mean age of 19. Most had a secondary or higher education (78%) and were not working (59%). Sixty-one percent lived in rural areas. Two-thirds had never migrated and had always lived in a rural area (45%) or an urban one (20%); 15% had moved between urban areas, 8% between rural areas, and the remainder from urban to rural regions (9%) or vice versa (3%). Slightly more than one-third (35%) of respondents had ever had sex; the proportion was higher among three of the migrant groups (urban–urban, urban–rural and rural–rural) than among the two nonmigrant groups (41–46% vs. 30–32%).

In unadjusted hazard models, the odds of sexual initiation were higher among all four migrant groups than among rural nonmigrants (odds ratios, 1.2–1.5). After adjustment for social and demographic variables, two of these associations disappeared, but the odds of initiation remained elevated among urban–rural and rural–rural migrants (1.2 for each). Catholics, other Christians and members of traditional sects were more likely than Muslims to have had premarital sex (1.3–1.4). In addition, having had premarital sex was positively associated with age, education and employment. Ethnicity was among the most important predictors of premarital sex: Members of the Niger Delta ethnic groups were more than 10 times as likely as individuals of Hausa-Fulani and ?Kanuri ethnicity to have had premarital sex (10.9), and several other ethnic groups also had highly elevated odds (5.3–8.3).

The finding that migration, or at least certain types of migration, is associated with premarital sex in Nigeria is consistent not only with the literature for other countries, but also with research indicating that migration from urban to rural areas has been an important transmission route for HIV in Nigeria, according to the authors. They note that the elevated odds of premarital sexual debut among rural–rural migrants suggests that this "hitherto neglected" group may warrant greater attention; providing these and other youth with opportunities to earn a living in their area of origin—thus addressing one of the key motivations for migration—"may be important for HIV/AIDS control." However, the researchers emphasize that migration is one of only several important factors associated with sexual behavior in Nigeria, which underscores "the need for behavior change policies and programs to be sensitive to the complex contextual nuances across youth groups" that influence the timing of sexual debut.—P. Doskoch


1. Mberu BU and White MJ, Internal migration and health: premarital sexual initiation in Nigeria, Social Science & Medicine, 2011, 72(8):1284–1293.