Dondena Interviews

If divorce or widowhood puts mothers and children in North America and Europe at risk, imagine what it does in the context of poverty and demographic transitions in a place like sub-Saharan Africa. Until recently, we could do only that—imagine. Because there were no estimates. Then along came McGill University’s Shelley Clark, who spoke to the Dondena Centre in October.


So if somebody misses your talk today, what are they going to miss?

The main take-home message is that we currently don’t have any estimates of divorce and widowhood in sub-Saharan Africa. And that we need them. We really, really need them.


That’s a good question. We need them because as we know, divorce and widowhood have a huge impact on women and on children. Men too, but there’s less research done on that. We, of course, know that there’s a negative impact of divorce on child well-being and development, say in North America or in Europe. Divorce and widowhood also contribute to women’s poverty and there are questions about women’s ability to re-enter into the workforce. All of these really critical demographic issues. I think that marriage is one of the key demographic pseudo-factors, and to me it’s actually just shocking that we don’t have even estimates of divorce and widowhood in any country in sub-Saharan Africa.

So what did you do? How did you get to the bottom of this?

The problem is, of course, that we don’t have data. We don’t have good vital registration data. We don’t have the right questions that are usually asked in surveys to try to answer this question and so what we are attempting to do here is say, Ok, we don’t have the data we really want, but we’re going to take the data we have and we’re going to try to come up with the best estimates we possibly can using a couple different methods. Relying on the traditional, period life table, assumptions of stationary populations, as well as something called the Sullivan Method, to take into account mortality rates to try to just produce, I would say not ideal but at least rough, estimates of divorce and widowhood in sub-Saharan Africa.

How many countries?

33 countries. So it’s not all the countries in sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s the vast majority of the population of sub-Saharan Africa.

So this has got to feel good.

Yes! It’s exciting. It’s my first time presenting the work and I’m curious to see if anyone has any ideas about how we could be doing these estimates better, given the constraints we have with the data.

How does this fit into the overall picture of the research you do, where you’ve been, where you’re headed?

A lot of this research actually came out of a project where I was trying to look at the impact of single motherhood overall, which would include not only divorce and widowhood but also premarital births and their impact on women’s poverty and child well-being and child mortality. I’m really interested in understanding how family dynamics operate and work in general, but applying that in sub-Saharan Africa, where it’s been neglected.

I think family dynamics are extremely important, and sub-Saharan Africa provides this really rich, interesting place to study family dynamics because families are enormously complex and they’re highly volatile. They change all the time, between the high migration, fostering, and what I will show today, very high divorce rates, we see that there are a lot of family transitions and shifting going on. I think that if we’re really going to get a handle on understanding why a family matters, why we care about who’s a member of a family and who’s not, whether or not people are in a formal union or not in a formal union, or how many wives you have, sub-Saharan Africa provides an interesting context in which to examine those questions. So this is somewhat of a newer area of focusing on these family dynamics and their effects.

Previously I’d been doing work on adolescent transitions to adulthood. There, too, I find that family contexts matter a lot. Who the kid lives with, the types of relationships with their parents, with their aunts, with their grandmothers, has a lot to say about how sexually active they are, whether or not they stay in school, what kind of jobs they can find. So it’s the out-growth of that.

Have you always focused on Africa?
I have focused on Africa now for about 15 years. So, not always. My dissertation work was in India. I’ve periodically done a little bit of work in the U.S., for a while I did work kind of everywhere: Brazil, Vietnam, Tunisia, all sorts of places.

What’s drawn you to this area of the world?

My initial draw, like I think a lot of people 15 years ago, was just recognizing the AIDS crisis there. It became known to researchers just how severe it was—we’re not talking about, you know, 0.5 percent of a population currently infected, we were looking at 25% of a population infected or 30%. The magnitude of the AIDS epidemic, and recognizing also how AIDS was expressed in sub-Saharan Africa was totally different than it was in, say, North America or Europe. We weren’t looking for men having sex with men, or even to a large extent at intravenous drug users, we were suddenly realizing that it was being transmitted through heterosexual intercourse, which meant that we really needed to understand the social dynamics going on—who’s at risk depends on the social context.

As a social demographer this just fascinated me, and I really wanted to be part of that investigation, trying to understand this different social context and why who’s at risk is so different in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s what drew me in, and I just haven’t been able to leave. I just find the issues incredibly compelling. Because of the high rates of poverty and the really high burden of disease in this area, the implications are really severe. Similarly, if you look at the impact of single motherhood on kids, there’s an impact. They seem to have some cognitive development issues, some behaviorial issues, they score a little bit less on some tests, things like that, in the U.S. But in sub-Saharan Africa, these kids of single mothers are more likely to die. So you’re working with people living on the edge. And some of these factors are really, really important. I just feel the criticalness of working in a place like sub-Saharan Africa.

Looking at social demography, tell me what you like about what you see going on in the field and what you wish you could see more of.

I think social demography has really opened itself up in the last decade or so to incorporating other aspects. So we are branching into areas around health. We’re looking at lot more at things like big data, and talking to computer scientists and computer programmers, we’re talking now to geographers, trying to understand how geographic data and spatial relationships also integrate with social dynamics. What I really like about social demography is it’s really not a very isolated field, it’s very connected, and it seems to me to be very open to thinking broadly and thinking from an interdisciplinary perspective. Almost all of the work we do is highly collaborative. So we have these teams of researchers who come from different disciplines and work together and share their expertise. Most of us like that. We like learning new areas rather than necessarily going super deep into just one particular area. We don’t define our borders all that well, and I kind of like that.

What would you like to see more of?

Honestly, just being blunt, what I’d like to see more of is more funding. I’m very concerned about the future of social demography in terms of funding and in terms of each country’s government’s priorities, in terms of what it is that matters. For population in general, of course, we saw a ton of funding in places like North America when we were concerned—way back in the day—about overpopulation. Some of those funding streams have actually remained active since that day, and we have been able to do some really impressive research with that. But now I think government priorities are shifting a bit and that there’s less funding available for these more innovative and somewhat experimental research areas that aren’t seen to be of key economic necessity to the government. And yet, I think that we do need to understand these things if we’re going to be able to answer questions that we are interested in, like what happens with our aging system, what happens when the institution of marriage is no longer relevant. But I see funding in this area really drying up and so much going towards, at least in Canada, engineering, medicine, technology, and less to social sciences more broadly.

What’s the next cool academic thing you have on your calendar that you’re looking forward to?

I’m teaching the rest of the term but in December we’re going to begin some initial pilot testing and launching a new project that just recently got funded. It’s working in the slums of Kenya, again it’s with women with children under the age of 5, looking at the challenges these women face in caring for their children, and finding the economic means to support their kids. One of the things we’re doing is giving these women vouchers so they can send their kids to daycares and preschools that are available in the slum area and examining the impact of that on women’s workforce participation, earnings, and, we hope, also to look at the impact on child well-being—their cognitive development and health outcomes.


Learn more about Shelley Clark here. Learn more about the Dondena Centre here.

















Last updated 23 February 2015 - 13:28:48