Social norms, agency, and marriage aspirations in Malawi

Document Type

Article (peer-reviewed)

Publication Date



Objective: This study evaluates whether community norms, caregiver beliefs, and adolescents' own beliefs and perceptions, focused on early marriage, predict adolescent marriage aspirations in a low-income context. Background: The processes that contribute to adolescent marriage aspiration formation have received little attention in low-income contexts, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. Understanding how marriage aspirations are formed is important because they are associated with critical education and health outcomes. Method: Using data that links Malawian adolescents (N = 2089) with their caregivers (N = 1452), gender-stratified ordered logistic regression models were used to examine key relationships. Results: Results show that community norms for youngest acceptable marriage age predict when boys want to marry, but there is no conclusive evidence that they predict when girls want to marry. This study also shows that adolescents who believe it is acceptable to marry at an early age are more likely to want to marry early themselves. Conclusion: Both community norms and adolescents' own beliefs are central to the formation of their marriage aspirations. Implications: This study recommends that programs incorporate adolescent beliefs and perceptions when designing child marriage interventions and measuring their impact. In addition, theory-driven measurement of community norms is encouraged to better evaluate their impact on both marriage aspirations and marriage age.