Why Is the Practice of Levirate Marriage Disappearing in Africa? HIV/AIDS as an Agent of Institutional Change
Levirate marriage, whereby a widow is inherited by male relatives of her deceased husband, has anecdotally been viewed as informal insurance for widows who have limited property rights. This study investigates why this widespread practice in sub-Saharan Africa has recently been disappearing. A developed game-theoretic analysis reveals that levirate marriage arises as a pure strategy subgame perfect equilibrium when a husband's clan desires to keep children of the deceased within its extended family and widows have limited independent livelihood means. Female empowerment renders levirate marriage redundant because it increases widows' reservation utility. HIV/AIDS also discourages a husband's clan from inheriting a widow who loses her husband to HIV/AIDS, reducing her remarriage prospects and thus, reservation utility because she is likely to be HIV positive. Consequently, widows' welfare tends to decline (increase) in step with the deterioration of levirate marriage driven by HIV/AIDS (female empowerment). By exploiting long-term household panel data drawn from rural Tanzania and testing multiple theoretical predictions relevant to widows' welfare and women's fertility, this study finds that HIV/AIDS is primarily responsible for the deterioration of levirate marriage. Young widows in Africa may need some form of social protection against the influence of HIV/AIDS.
Keywords: Female empowerment, HIV/AIDS, informal insurance, levirate marriage, social institution, widowhood protection
JEL classification: J12, J13, J16, Z13
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