The Changing Phases of African Marriage and Family: Perspectives on Nigeria in the African Context

Kokunre Agbontaen-Eghafona
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University if Benin, Benin City, Nigeria


The family as the smallest and oldest institution in society is important for the growth and development of society. It is the building block of society. The family takes a central role in the survival of the society as a whole, both for biological and social reproductions (Olutayo & Omobowale, 2006). In Nigeria, marriage is a pathway for the existence of the family. The family is considered a primary aspect of an individual’s life. There is a high value placed on marriage and the family, and most individuals will identify their families as the most important thing in their lives. However, with modernization, industrialization, urbanization, and globalization, there is a shift in how marriage and family are now viewed. Marriage and family have experienced fundamental changes, and this has major consequences to individuals and the society. Therefore, this presentation will focus on the changing patterns of African marriage and family in Nigeria and will discuss the historical analysis of marriage and family systems in the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial era; the delimiting factors affecting marriage and family systems; visible areas of changes in marriage and family; the future of marriage and family; the importance of family in the present generation; and practical ways to improve marriage and family systems.

Definition of marriage and family (the philosophical, social, and economic viewpoint of marriage)

Marriage and family are crucial systems in society. They are always linked together. They have a historical background and are as old as man on earth. The present definition of marriage is different from what it was several years ago. Marriage was defined as the union of a man and a woman for reproduction reasons. However, the definition has changed globally. Today, marriage can be defined with different viewpoints, as an institution, a partnership, and as a responsibility. Generally, marriage can be defined as the legally recognized union between two persons that is based on a sexual relationship. The philosophical basis for this union is that man should not be alone, but rather have a union that is completely legal and long-lasting; a legal union that is socially and religiously acceptable for sex and procreation. Socially, marriage forms the base of a family that helps in the transmission of cultural values from one generation to another. Economically, marriage is regarded as a legal union between two people that creates room for mutual gainful interdependence.

Similarly, there are various meanings people give to what constitutes a family. The conservatives will define the family as a social group made up of the father, mother, children, and other extended family members. Sociologically, what constitutes a family is much more complex. A family is defined as a social group that is joined by either blood, marriage, and adoption that serves as the economic unit of the society. Because the family is the bedrock of a society, the state must protect families. The Nigerian marriage and family systems have undergone several changes in society and these changes keep defining whether marriage and family are really functional or necessary in modern society. 

Historical analysis of marriage and family systems in Nigeria

Marriage and family have experienced enormous changes in Nigeria. The African marriage and family systems are changing. The changes have also affected the definition of what constitutes marriage and family. Before the major changes, the Nigerian family held on to extended ties in which uncles, aunts, grandparents lived together with the nuclear family. The family was not only a bond between those related by blood, it had a communal connection. Every member of the community was involved in each other’s activities. Proverbs such as “the child belongs to the entire community” are a clear indication of the communal living that existed in Nigerian society. However, with westernization, urbanization, modernization, and globalization, marriage and the family system experienced major changes. To get an in-depth understanding of the changes in marriage and family in Nigeria, the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial eras will be discussed.

Marriage and family in the pre-colonial era

In the pre-colonial era (before 1914) people aspired to get married before the age of 18 (for women), and 25 (for men). At the age of 30 years, a woman was considered to be late in marriage while men had no definite late age, because men of 70 years could marry a new wife. Marriage depicted patriarchy with the ultimate price being the bride price. Women rarely had the right to make a choice: a spinster’s rights belonged to her parents, and even in marriage, all her rights were transferred to her husband. Also, women did not have a right to choose a husband: it was the parents’ duty to choose husbands for them. In some cultures (Efik people in South Eastern Nigeria), women were kept in a safe place, a fattening room, where they were taught how to be obedient, loving and loyal to their husbands. Their husbands were their ‘lords’ and the women must obey all their husbands’ spoken and unspoken commands. Their being in marriage was enough pride to their family.

At this time, a woman’s glory was said to be her husband, thus, he was her lord and master. Similarly, for the man, his family often sought for the girl’s hand in marriage on his behalf. Marriage was a meeting between two families, the man’s family asking, and the woman’s family accepting or not. The woman had no right to decide and would accept her father’s decision. Polygynous marriage was very common; it was mainly for economic reasons. Women and children were more of economic instruments for the men who were mostly farmers. Since the land was cultivated with ‘simple’ means of labor, many hands were needed for maximal cultivation of land and this might have enhanced the prevalence of polygyny – which ensured the availability of labour, children and wives (Olutayo & Omobowale, 2006).

In the pre-colonial era, the family system was strictly established through marriage. In other words, marriage was necessary to raise a family in the pre-colonial era. The extended family was the most practiced type of family in pre-colonial Nigeria. It was made up of two or more nuclear families living together. The family system was patriarchal in nature, and men had complete dominance over women. Women did not have a right to control their fertility: they had no rights over their bodies. Consequently, the family size was large. Economically, women were completely dependent on men as there were distinct gender roles in a family. Men catered for the needs of their wives and children, while women had the traditional role of childbearing and childrearing. The socialization of the child was mainly handled by the women in the family, usually the eldest woman. Olutayo and Omobawale (2006) noted that the socialization of children was the role of the eldest women in the family, either as grandmothers, mothers-in-law, or the first wife. Oftentimes, a senior wife had an administrative role whereby she delegated responsibilities to the junior wives and children. The senior wife was often in charge of monitoring the actions of the younger wives around other men, watching for signs of deviation from marital loyalty (Bledsoe and Cohen, 1993). 

Thus, the Nigerian family system was guided by the system of seniority. The family cherished values such as respect for elders and seniors. Younger persons would always call the senior people with dignified respectful titles such as “uncle, aunt, grandma, grandpa, papa, mama, daddy, mummy”, and several others based on the ethnicity of the people. Children had no decision-making right and followed the leading of their parents. In the pre-colonial era, marriage and family generally favored men, while women suffered marginalization, discrimination, and inequality in the family and the women did not have a problem with it, rather they faithfully accepted their status to be second-class citizens in the society. 

Marriage and family in the colonial era

The rule of the British Colony in Nigeria (1914-1960) brought several changes to the various sectors in Nigerian society. Every institution, including marriage and family, experienced change. Nevertheless, because the colonial masters were more focused on breaking into their economic aspects in Nigeria, they had to penetrate into our rich cultural values. Firstly, education influenced the age people got married. It created more opportunities and made the men more ambitious. Hence, they did not depend on agriculture alone, nor got married early to start raising a family for economic reasons. Women also became a bit advantaged and got opportunities to get educated and get a job. Nevertheless, they had no power to make or take decisions for themselves for marriage. It was either her family chose a spouse, or their consent was needed for the fiancé she brought to the family. In the colonial era, marriages were still polygynous in nature. A man with many wives was viewed as a great influential man who was rich, hence, could take care of several children and wives. However, there was an additional reason for men marrying several wives. It was not only for economic reasons. Politically, men with many wives and children gained political recognition, power, and prestige. Because they were married from different families, they tended to get the necessary support from several families enough to put them in an advantaged position politically. Bledsoe and Cohen’s (1993) idea supports this notion as they explained that the political stature for a man largely reflected the number of wives and children he had and that he gained political alliance and support from a wide range of families. Therefore, polygynous marriage had economic, social, and political gains, and all of these gains were in favor of the men, while women suffered from the gains.

Marriage was still valued as the yardstick to begin a family. The extended family system was still in place but gradually began disintegrating between the early 1940s to late 1950s. The advent of colonialism altered the working condition of Nigerian women with the introduction of western education (Ige & Adekile, 2012). Before the colonial rule, women only worked within the confines of the home as wives and mothers handling their traditional roles of childbearing and caring. Colonialism brought about the growth of companies and creation of jobs that men would primarily handle. Jobs associated with teaching and cleaning were left for women. Therefore, few women were employed with low wages as compared to men. Patriarchy crept into the formal organizations. Back in the home, women still suffered lack of control in fertility matters. The acceptance of contraceptives was still very low, and it was not completely acceptable. Women needed the total consent of their husbands to use contraceptives. Hence, the family size remained large but with the absence of extended families. 

Like in the pre-colonial era, there were marked gender roles for the husband and wife. Despite the fact that few women worked outside the home, they did jobs that gave them enough time for their families because the role of socialization was dependent on them. One of the values that women had to teach their children was respect for elders and seniors within the family and the wider society. Marriage was valued and had social gains. Women gained a higher status when addressed as married women in the society. Having a home was regarded as an achievement that families yearned for on behalf of their daughters. Also, men had political and economic gains being married and having a family. Gradually, the colonial era gave room for the problem of gender inequalities to be addressed in marriages, and this is mainly because women had access to jobs outside the home and an income: an act that is perceived to have reduced the heightened discrimination and inequalities women experienced before colonialism.

Marriage and family in the post-colonial era: current state of marriage and family

Industrialization, urbanization, and globalization triggered the transformation of societies and created several opportunities. These opportunities could not be handled by the male folks alone, hence, an increasing number of women moved into the formal labour market, competing with men. The marriage institution in the post-colonial era has experienced several changes. Firstly, the age for marriage has changed. Young women now seek to get an education, get a job and probably assist their families before settling for marriage and beginning a family. Factors such as education, Christian ideals of monogamy, and ambitions to social mobility have tremendously affected the age for marriage in the post-colonial era. Aspirations to have a career have increased the average age at which people marry. Most women are no longer in a hurry to get married, but rather choose to get married for social and economic gains. Women’s ambition to be financially and socially independent means that they are most likely to accept marriage proposals that can satisfy most of their financial, social, and economic needs. Hence, the responsibility of choosing a spouse is largely dependent on the individual (male or female), and no longer on the family. Individuals present their love interest to their families for approval rather than the families choosing for them. Despite this development, the selection of marriage partners is still done with the consent of family members, although not as strict as before. The polygynous type of marriage is no longer popular and has paved way for monogamous marriages. Research conducted in the late 1980s showed that by 1963/64, the large majority of workers had made the transition to monogamy: 86.1 percent of a sample of married workers had only one wife. Between 1963/64 and 1981/82, monogamy further increased its hold in the Nigerian working class (Damachi, Holloh & Seibel, 1988).

The economic hardships amongst other factors, in the country, has driven the love of polygyny out of men, farming no longer is the main source of livelihood, but blue-collar jobs. In the pre-colonial and colonial era, there was a strong preference for births to occur in families, but in the post-colonial period, marriage and the family is no longer the basis for childbirth. It is fast becoming a norm for young women to cohabit with their spouses and have children outside the wedlock before getting married. Gradually, people place less emphasis on marriage for childbirth and we see and hear people celebrate “baby mamas”. Unlike in the pre-colonial and colonial era, having a child out of wedlock was a huge source of shame for the family. Traditional African family patterns are slowly but progressively being altered as a result of the process of modernization. The traditional family values in traditional societies are gradually being substituted by modern values. Although modernization has brought about changes in the Nigerian economy, the family remains an integral part of people’s lives. Units and groups are arising with the tag of being a family despite not having blood relations. Churches, mosques, fraternities, and social groups attempt to bond as a family. There is substantial importance attached to being a member of a family such as receiving love and having a sense of belonging, but the problem of upholding cultural family values in a changing world fundamentally remains a problem. Westernization and modernization infiltrates the family system, and certain values are gradually being lost. 

In the pre-colonial and colonial era, respect for elders was a value possessed by the Nigerian child. Children would never call their parents or elders by name, look them in the eyes while speaking to senior ones, stand up for elders to sit, greet them always and strive to get complimented by them. However, with modernization, respect for elders is greatly truncated. Young people have cursed out elders on social media, talked rudely to relatives and elders, and do not care about the opinion of the elders about them. Also, there are little or no attachments to lineal and community relations. Families are becoming more monogamous and losing the fiber of collectivism and communalism. Parents restrict their children from other members of society unlike in the pre-colonial era, where a child belonged to the entire community. Residents and people mind their business and do not get involved in the lifestyle of their neighbors, friends, and relatives. This has further changed the family patterns in Nigerian society.

The Nigerian family system has been adulterated with westernization. Education and participation in the formal labor market have made families cut down on family size. Because families are primarily monogamous in nature, the number of children in a home has greatly reduced as compared to the pre-colonial era. Patriarchy remains firm and even though women are more exposed and receptive to contraceptives, most women need the approval of their husbands to do so. More so, there are still distinct gender roles in the family and this primarily seems to be a major source of trouble in modern society. More and more women are becoming breadwinners at home but are still saddled with the responsibility of childbearing, childcaring, and providing emotional support for every member of the family. While they handle their traditional unpaid labor, they are still burdened with managing paid jobs. Unfortunately, the women’s gender roles remain the same, while men hold on to patriarchal practices and their traditional gender roles. 

This has been one of the common reasons for tension in several homes involving millennials and has led to an increase in the divorce rate in Nigeria. Divorce was not common in Nigerian families but lately it has been on the increase. In 2018, separation rates in Nigeria recorded a 14 percent increase from the report in 2016. In a report published in 2018, a total of 3000 divorce cases were recorded in Badagry, Lagos, while over 1 million cases of registered divorcees were recorded in Kano (Ige & Adekile, 2012). Unlike in the pre-colonial and colonial era, being a divorcee or a lone parent is fast becoming an acceptable status with little or no stigmatization.

Delimiting practices/challenges affecting marriage and family systems in Nigeria

In as much as we wish to seek solutions to the challenges facing marriage and the family system in Nigeria and Africa, and to see the common good of a family, it is important to first know the causes of the problems militating against the survival of marriage and family in a changing society. Family patterns are increasingly subjected to the changing patterns in society. Several factors have contributed to changes and challenges in the marriage and family system in Nigeria. They are:

·      Urbanization: According to Göran Therborn (2006), African societies have experienced slight distortion in the patriarchal tradition, following the advent of urbanization. Male supremacy has also been altered a bit even though it still has a prominent stronghold in society. Urbanization ushered in modernization that invariably has brought different changes in marriage and family patterns. Urbanization through migration, education and hustle for a better life, has created changes in the economic, education, and health sectors and this has triggered changes in the family value system. Traditional cultural family values are in a constant struggle with modern family values and practices.

  • Polygyny: The common type of marriage practiced in pre-colonial Nigeria was Polygyny. In the traditional society, polygyny continued because of the economic gains it yielded for men who were farmers and made use of the large family size for labor. There were multiple wives, many children, extended family members to provide essential services in the farming practice. With modernization and globalization, agriculture gradually stepped aside for the formal labor market. Polygyny that was popular, became rare amongst the millennials. Comparative studies from Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania show that monogamous households have taken a greater hold on society (Bigombe & Khadiagala, 1990). Among the Igbo of Nigeria, polygyny seems to be a declining form of marriage as the strength of the conjugal relationship predominates over other family and community relationships (Bigombe & Khadiagala, 1990). Recent surveys such as the Demographic and Health Survey (2013) declared that 33 percent of women reported that their husbands have more than one wife. Poor economic conditions in the society, education, change of occupation from agriculture to the formal labor market, religion, and modernization are some of the factors that have yielded the rise of monogamous over polygynous marriage, which has changed the Nigerian marriage and family patterns.
  • Economic independence of women: Industrialization, urbanization, and modernization had positive and negative effects on society. Negatively, they created the spirit of capitalism that led to more hardship for workers in society. Inflation occurred and the standard of living for families was low as income from one spouse was not sufficient. Positively, urbanization created more job opportunities in the society and created room for women to realize that their fecundity does not only end in childbearing and caring but that she could boost the economic and financial life of her family by supporting her husband and being financially independent. Women’s getting jobs outside their homes gave them economic independence in modern society. Today, some women believe that they can take care of themselves and their children rather than enduring the tough sides of marriage created by the patriarchal system. There is an assumption on the independence effect that states that additional income reduces the need for a woman to find a partner with whom she can pool resources because her income is assumed to make her more independent and less likely to partner (Burstein 2007; Bzostek et al. 2012; Cancian & Meyer, 2014).
  • Clash of western and cultural values: With the growth of industries and influx of westernization in the Nigerian economy through media and migration, several aspects of the society have experienced changes, and the family is not exempted. The institution of marriage is considerably changing to the process of industrialization/modernization. Socioeconomic circumstances are encountering changes that forge alteration of the fundamental values of traditional family values. There is an influence on the Nigerian family system by western values. The western value system presents equal practices for men and women in the family. Men assist their wives with household chores such as cleaning, cooking, and caring for the children. On the other hand, women contribute to the financial purse of the family, thereby supporting their husband’s traditional role of providing. There is an absence of total patriarchy in marriages and families in the western societies. With education, modernization, and westernization in the Nigerian society, the Nigerian culture is undergoing an acculturation process but gender roles remain unchanged.

Another area where there seem to be a clash of western and cultural values is how children express themselves. Children in the pre-colonial societies did not have a voice to speak. Nowadays, children are becoming more expressive, disrespectful to parents and elders, and becoming lackadaisical in looking after aged parents. The western practice of putting old parents in old people’s homes is alien to the Nigerian cultural values. However, in modern Nigeria, children are gradually taking the modern route by hiring caregivers to take care of their aged parents, instead of doing so by themselves.

  • Poor socialization of children: Another major cause of changes in the Nigerian marriage and family is poor socialization. The first agent of socialization is the family: With the growth of career opportunities in society, parents are busier with work to enable them to achieve their economic and financial responsibilities to their families. Children are then left at the mercy of domestic staff, peers, teachers, and media to learn. The place of the family unit to teach children cultural and societal values is being truncated and this invariably affects the society. Poor socialization of children has resulted in them not having the appropriate cultural ways to behave, respect and honor people. Unfortunately too, mothers still raise their sons using patriarchal yardsticks that do not fit into the modern society. Boys are taught to be assertive, egoistic, proud, domineering, macho-like, not expressing their emotions, while women are taught to be humble, unambitious, dependent, meek, calm, unexpressive, and weak. These values are not in adherence to modern society and cause tension in marriages and family because there will be a constant clash of what was learned and what is practiced in a changing society.
  • Societal acceptance of lone parents, divorcee, and separated couples: Separation and divorce were very uncommon in the pre-colonial and colonial era and single parenthood was not acceptable. Even widows were made to marry their husband’s brothers just to avoid being single parents. Young girls were made to marry at early ages and nurtured to endure turbulences in marriage. However, westernization with its values has infiltrated the Nigerian marriage and family system and lone parents are fast becoming a new marriage and family institution. It is almost becoming an ambition for some young ladies to be single mothers with wealthy men fathering their children, while some of the women are independent ladies who do not wish to be part of the marital challenges but will rather raise a child or two by themselves with the help of their mother or domestic staff. Single parenthood is an emerging family system in Nigeria that is gradually gaining popularity.
  • Lack of communication: Communication demands a great deal of effort and time. Couples have become too busy pursuing a career and financial stability and rarely have time to communicate. Parents have minimal time communicating with their children. The use of social media and electronic gadgets has occupied children and parents, usurping the few moments to be shared as a family. Consequently, the absence of communication can ultimately lead to crisis at home, leading to divorce and separation. Communication is very essential in stabilizing a marriage: Without communication, it is nearly impossible to resolve conflicts or grow a partnership (Esere, Yusuf, & Omotosho, 2011). 
  • Migration: In Nigeria, migration is fast becoming a source of livelihood for families, and providing increased job opportunities and income for people. Aside from people migrating from rural to urban areas, migration from urban to urban areas, country to country also occurs. People working in a different state, off-shore, and even in a different country have a strong effect on the structure of the family. Urban migration has an impact on African marriages and families as it reflects the abiding tensions between the imperatives of economic survival and social dislocations (Bigombe & Khadiagala, 1990). Recent trends in Nigeria show that some husbands or wives migrate for economic reasons. It is very common for men and boys to migrate in search of jobs in urban areas. On the other hand, some women migrate to join their husbands, while some migrate to foreign nations to improve the standard of living of their family members. Young girls/daughters can be trafficked with promises of providing a better life for them and their family. These practices have created new structures in the family whereby children become the breadwinners. Furthermore, migration can lead to dysfunctional marriages, broken homes, divorce, and dysfunctional families. Males migrating are more likely to start a new family in the location considering the polygamous nature of man. Women left behind are saddled with the responsibility of being both a mother and a father to the children and this creates a situation where the woman may be mistaken to be the head of the home by her children. Hence, a new family structure is created.

Visible areas of changes in marriage and family in Nigeria

Undoubtedly, the marriage and family system in Nigeria has experienced notable changes. There are several areas and they are:

  • Fertility rate: In recent years, women are obliging the usage of family planning methods and are taking control of their fertility. Women with jobs outside the home are intentional about spacing children and controlling their fertility. Similarly, full-time housewives are concerned with their fertility for economic reasons. They understand that the funds brought home by their husbands may not be sufficient for a large family. Women are also aware of the health hazards of having too many children such as obesity, weakened bladder, etc. In recent times, there is also spousal support from men to women to control childbirth. For economic reasons, men seem to support women because of the perceived hardship in the economy. A man once joked that “the thought of paying school fees, feeding and other forms of expenses is a great motivation for birth control”. Thus, the usage of modern contraceptives has expanded. Also, modernization and education have brought more consciousness to women and men on the need to control childbirth, and to decide on the right time to have children. Even though couples can control when to have children or not, there can be interference from extended family members such as the mother of the bride or groom who often calls for more grandchildren. Nevertheless, fertility rate in marriages has greatly changed as compared to the pre-colonial era.
  • Family size: Fertility control and reduced fertility rate consequently lead to reduced family size. The family size in the pre-colonial era was large and mainly because of the economic benefits it gave to the men who were farmers. Young Igbo couples tend to have fewer children than their parents as knowledge and use of modern contraceptives have expanded (Bigombe & Khadiagala, 1990). With modernization, globalization, and education, people have moved from agriculture to white-collar jobs and do not see the reason to have a large family especially as the nation presents economic instability for the common man in Nigeria. According to Mbacke (1998), arguments have been put forth that economic hardship plays a pivotal role in the reduction of family sizes in contemporary sub-Saharan African societies such as Nigeria. Decision-making about childbearing to a considerable extent depends on family status, especially for the enlightened individuals. The reduced family size also presents a new family structure.
  • Age in marriage: Before Colonialism, Nigerians married at an early age. At the age of 20, most girls were fully settled in their husband’s home, while men began to marry as early as 25 years. Nevertheless, men could also marry more wives at later ages. However, in modern society, the average age at which people get married in Nigeria now is 25 years. Young girls pursue education to a minimum of a university degree and still strive to get a job before they get married. Sociologically, it has been argued that ideational changes, such as the spread of individualism and the greater emphasis on self-realization, together with changing aspirations for paid work, are the main driving forces behind the postponement of family formation (both marriage and childbearing) and the increasing fragility of couple relationships in modern societies (Olah, Kotowska, & Richtor, 2018). More so, society has adjusted to the new age for marriage; people would rather disapprove of young girls below 20 years getting married.
  • Type of marriage and family: The extended family system paved way for the nuclear family. The rich communal lifestyle has been replaced with individualism. Family connections are restricted to the immediate circle of father, mother and children. Family members need to ask for an invite or be invited before visiting their relative’s homes, a practice that is alien to our cultural values of communal relations. More so, the disintegration of the extended family system presents some negative effects on the children. The precolonial era practiced the extended family system where they had children being corrected, socialized by aunts, uncles, grandmother, grandfather, and even other wives. However, with the changing extended family structure into the nuclear family, the responsibility to raise children largely depends on the parents alone. Unfortunately, the parents are often occupied with the responsibility of providing for the home. Consequently, children are exposed to several ills in society. Olutayo and Omobowale (2012) described it as the working conditions of children such as the involvement of youth in crime. 
  • Gender roles: The traditional role of men in the family system can be summarized to be provision, production and protection, while the primary role of women is childbearing, childcaring, and general care of the home. In the pre-colonial era, men were saddled with the responsibility to provide for their homes through hunting, fishing, and farming, while women took care of the children. The gender roles were culturally-based. With urbanization and industrialization, employment opportunities were created for men and women, and both parties needed to be active because of the economic hardship in the society. The traditional roles of women were sustained with the additional responsibility of women supporting their husbands financially. Today, more women share, and even take over the financial responsibilities in the home such as rent, school fees, and feeding the family. However, women’s traditional role of caring for the home is not accepted by their husbands. The average Nigerian man still holds on to the ideology that he is the breadwinner and should not perform any traditional role assigned to women such as cleaning, child caring, and so on. Although a few men are gradually becoming more supportive of their wives as they help in certain chores at home, they are not mandated to do so unlike women who may not have a choice and must contribute to the economic and financial lifestyle of their families. 
  • Parenting style: The Nigerian traditional family system operates a “control” style of parenting. Control in the sense that children were to obey every instruction given to them by their parents, and parents were in charge of the decision-making process. Children in the pre-colonial and colonial era were raised to take their parents as Lords over them. Parents, elders and senior family members controlled the lives of the children and younger ones; it was the parents’ decision to choose a school for children, what to eat, how to dress, and how to behave. Parents led the children at every stage of life, including after they had married. In the Igbo culture, mothers go to their daughters’ houses to teach them how to nurse their newly born babies and also nurse the new mother, an act termed omugwo. The father was like a king to be respected, feared, and never to be offended; children trembled at the thought of their father being angry, especially as they were largely dependent on their parents. The parenting style was strict and commanded lots of respect from the children. It was a parent-child relationship with a hierarchy: father at the apex, followed by the mother, extended members of the family, and children below.

However, in recent years, the parenting style takes a web form, and the hierarchy has been dismantled. What is obtainable is no longer a hierarchy but a web in which children are part of the decision-making process. In fact, children make their decisions and inform the parents to be aware. There is a rising level of independence displayed by children. Technology, gains from migration, and globalization have created opportunities for children to be financially independent, and rather than depending on their parents for direction, they fall back to their peers and media for direction. Children now make decisions for themselves, and the best the parents can do is to accept. Parents, on the other hand, are embracing the western parenting styles that give the child a right to expression. Modern parents create a “best friend” kind of relationship with children, rather than being parents and this is not an effective way of parenting. According to the founder of the Family Room, LLC George Carey in a TED Talk on the future of the families, the new description for the kind of relationship that parents want to have with their children is being a best friend. He further had this to say

“I have worked in my job with an awful lot of family, psychologists, as a father I have read many, many parenting manuals, and I can tell you that not one of those authorities have ever told me that this is a good thing: this violates one of the basic principles of parenting which is that you are not supposed to be your kid’s best friend but that is where we are heading very rapidly” (Carey, 3:46)

When parents become best friends with their children, they lose the decision-making right and control over the children. Parents are becoming more fixated on the material gains their children bring to them rather than directing them. We find parents rejoicing over the wealth made by the children illegally, and young children being the breadwinners of their household. Nowadays, parents seem to follow their children’s lead, rather than children following the parent’s lead. The parenting style in the modern-day family system in Nigeria has experienced visible changes. 

In another dimension, there is a rise in the number of lone parents in Nigerian society. There is an increasing number of single mothers raising children alone. Some women choose to remain single maybe after a divorce, or after having a child out of wedlock, or out of personal decision to remain independent. Before modern society, this practice was condemned and single mothers were discriminated against and stigmatized. Even in the workplace, single mothers were discriminated against. Bigombe and Khadiagala (1990) explained that most African countries do not have legislation that guarantees maternity leave for single working mothers, policies that need to be adopted to respond to the new social trend. However, there is a growing acceptance of members of the society in accepting the new family structure-single parenting. Nevertheless, single parents are yet to be fully recognized and catered for in some policies and plans. I believe single mothers are not fully accepted in religious gatherings such as baby dedications. Some churches may refuse to openly dedicate the child in the congregation but may do so at their home or church office. In some organizations, maternity leave is not given to single mothers.

·      Social bonding and entertainment: The Nigerian culture is very rich. In the pre-colonial years, there was the existence of inseparable social bond among family members. Families created fun for themselves within the home; grandparents shared tales by moonlight to children, children sat at the feet of their parents to listen to cultural folklores; norms and practical values that are highly valuable to survival in the society were taught during family relaxation time. It was a family ritual for every family member to sit outside at sunset sharing special moments, singing together, playing hand games, discovering each other’s strength, talent and love language. However, with the growth of technology and expansion of career opportunities, parents have become too busy and tired to create fun time after work. Also, with the advent of electronic gadgets such as cartoons for children in TV stations, and with the promotion of western games via the media, children are too occupied to bond with family members. Siblings rarely have time for themselves and every family member seems to be a stranger to the other.


Part two

The future of the family system in Nigeria

Marriage and family are undeniable a beautiful gift from God, and the fabric of the society. ‘It was not good for a man to be alone’, thus, the creation of the woman to be a source of companionship and a helpmate to live together. Although people still believe in this notion, there are lots of distractions in modern society that limit a balanced marriage and family, such as urbanization, modernization, and globalization. Nevertheless, marriage and family remain functional to man in a changing society. Therefore, this part will discuss the importance of the family and recommend practical ways to enhance marriage and family practices in Nigeria.

Marriage and family as a common good to man and society

Marriage and family are gifts to mankind. It is the smallest unit in society and forms the bedrock of societies. Marriage and family have several functions to man and society. They are:

First, marriage is the only official medium for sexual relations. The fact that people engage in pre-marital sex and cohabit does not make it official. Sex is only official and legal before our Maker and society in marriage. It is in a family that children are born and raised. In the Igbo tribe, a child born out of wedlock or outside a family is termed illegal and would not be able to get some benefits. In Nigeria, children born out of wedlock suffer in ways that their mates in families do not. Hence, we hear of women enduring their marriage because they do not want their children to suffer. Marriage and family are the legal means to procreate and socialize children. 

Second, marriage and family provide psychological support to members. When two people are joined together, they are to provide each other companionship, influencing each other positively. Although marriages do experience tensions, if properly handled, the psychological gains cannot be underestimated. Children also gain psychological support in the family. The family must provide stability for children in an unstable society. Many problems we have in society can be traced to children who did not have a psychological and emotional attachment with their family. Such children grow up to be armed robbers, kidnappers, and terrorists who make the society unbearable to live in. 

Furthermore, the family plays a social function to people and the society. The family is the primary agent of socialization for the child. A child is born with a tabula rasa mind, and it is the family that has the responsibility of teaching the child the norms and values of society first, before any other agent of socialization. Socialization starts at birth and ends at death. The family is key in providing basic social security for the child at birth and even for adults at death. It starts with a baby dedication and in later years ends in burial rites; both events are handled by the family. More so, in Nigeria, it is the family who provides for and protects the aged members. The old people’s home is alien to our cultural practice; rather, the family is the main caregiver for the aged. The family also provides recreational and educational activities for children. Mothers especially act as doctors, teachers, spiritual guardians, designers, referees, and entertainers for their children. These social functions enhance the development of children in society and place them in a better social standing free from psychological damage.

Marriage and family are a source of financial security. With the creation of opportunities for women to have a career, the family has a bigger purse to take care of the financial needs of the members. This has helped to improve the standard of living of people, although there are exemptions to this. Families can now afford some luxuries for their children such as electronic gadgets such as phones, computer games, vacations, and so on. Also, taxes are taken by the government and the funds are used for the provision of basic amenities in the nation. Because the family is a common good to man, peace must be maintained in marriages so that these functions can be fully exercised. 

Suggested practical ways for best marriage and family systems in Nigeria

Bonding time for families: Modernization has yielded increased wealth for families and has affected social bonding. Families have bigger houses, sophisticated electronics in each room, individual phones for children and parents, and other luxuries to make the family comfortable at the expense of family bonding time. Parents and children rarely have the same time to sit and watch programs together, play together, pray together, and even eat together. Parents are in a hurry to dive out into the responsibilities of their official jobs, and at the end of the day, children usually do not have bonding time with family. Parents have minimal time for children; mothers are engrossed in being financially independent and economically useful at the expense of their traditional roles of socialization and child care. The responsibility of child care has been shifted to domestic staff, and in extreme cases, children learn from their peers and social media, most of which are opposed to the traditional values in a family. The perfect solution for this problem is to get parents to create bonding time for the family: annual leave, weekends; public holidays should be set aside for this. Deliberate efforts should be made by parents to train their children, not leaving the responsibilities to domestic staff. Also, it is advisable to have the presence of extended members of the family in the home where both parents are busy. Extended family members that share the same values would greatly be of help to guide and socialize children better than domestic staff. Grandmothers, grand aunties, aunties, and senior cousins can be functional as support systems for busy parents. 

Change in the socialization of children: The modern family lacks proper socialization of children. First, the role structure used in raising children is fast changing. Before this time, male children were raised to be providers for their families, while female children were raised to sit back at home and take care of the home. This role structure changed, but it has a one-sided change. Why? Parents socialize male children with previous traditional style and roles, but the roles of women have largely changed. The transformation of women’s roles has been on the rise, while that of men has remained the same. For the family to survive and thrive in modern society, there is a need for parents to teach their sons some other gender roles and not hold on to the traditional roles of provision in a changing society. Sons should be involved in domestic chores. Also, they should be taught that women deserve equal opportunities and benefits. There is a need for men in modern society to embrace feminism not only in the workplace but at home. Currently, some families experience tension because husbands and fathers still hold on to the patriarchal values in a changing society that is presenting opportunities for women. Therefore, mothers/women must socialize their sons properly to suit the present society by adjusting gender roles and viewing marriage as a partnership rather than a space for domination and rule.

Government and non-governmental interventions: The family remains the fabric and foundation of the society. Yet, it is unfortunate that the Government focuses on all other institutions more than the family. If family wellbeing is listed as one of the Sustainable Development Goals, then it is important that the Government and non-governmental organizations place priority on marriages and family. The government can enhance healthier marriages and families through various counselling institutions. Families that experience extreme poverty, lack, and tension can be identified and assisted. If western countries support families with child support for children less than 18 years, our nation, Nigeria can also do so. The Government and non-governmental organizations can also set up pre-counselling and post-counseling programmes for those yet to marry, and married persons.

Non-governmental organizations and religious institutions such as churches, mosques and foundations can create platforms or programmes that offer stage-to-stage post-counselling marital sessions and programmes. Marriages need to get counselling at different phases. Couples that have been married for 1-5 years face relatively different challenges than couples that have been married for 20-25 years. It is necessary that these non-governmental organizations take into cognizance this factor and create appropriate measures to give support to families and marriages to avoid dysfunctions.

Enforcement of civil law in Nigerian marriages: In Nigeria, there are several marital laws based on regions, religion, and law. Civil law formally forbids polygamy and it is an offense against the law of bigamy. However, there is also the sharia law in Northern Nigeria that approves polygamous marriages in the northern states under the Islamic sharia law. Civil law does not have a grip over entire Nigeria. Consequently, polygyny is still embedded in our modern urban and educated environment, contravening women’s right to equality. Nevertheless, polygamy still exists even with civil law.

Creation of policies that can foster a balanced marriage and family system: Paternity leave is one policy that can encourage men to be involved with childcare. It is effective in some institutions in Nigeria, but not yet popular. The belief that taking paternity leave may be against hegemonic masculinity should be discouraged. Paternity leave should be viewed as a courageous act and increases the chances of a smooth partnership in parenting. A father should be present to nurse his wife’s emotional needs after childbirth, be supportive as she takes up a new role as a mother and this can help avoid post-natal depression. Most Nigerian men are quick to invite their mother in-law to spend months with their daughters taking care of them and their baby and are not involved in the process. Often than not, there is a vacuum created in the marriage, and men complain of neglect. Both the father in-law and the husband can be victims of neglect during the process of omugwo. Young fathers should involve in the nursing processes of newly born babies and mothers to avoid issues of neglect or depression. Hardin (2020) explained that first-time fathers could experience postpartum depression when they observe that the new mother’s focus has changed from him to their child, and this can be hard to accept. She further observed that some dads find it difficult to make the transition from a one on one relationship with the mother to a family of three. The best formula for men not to feel left out is to actively participate in the nurturing of the newborn. Hence, there is a need for a work policy to grant men paternity leave to strengthen family unity and partnership. After all, new fatherhood is generally defined as a present, more involved, and caring father (Tanturri et al. 2016, cited in Olah, Kotowska, & Richtor, 2018).

In another dimension, there should be more family planning sensitization and awareness schemes to empower women to be in control of reproduction rights. This will enhance their status and improve the health of women. Government must create practical avenues that encourage the usage of contraceptives such as providing free family planning plans for women, free contraceptives, and creating awareness programmes to reach the rural areas. Single motherhood is an emerging family form that is getting recognized in Nigerian society. Although it may not be culturally valued in the traditional society, there should be national, state, and local government programs targeted at enhancing the economic opportunities for single mothers and the protection of their children. 

Upholding fundamental traditional values in a changing society: The gradual closing of the gender gap in the formal labor market has an extensive implication on the structure of the family. Despite this, some values must be upheld by women, especially as Africans. Women must sustain the traditional role of childcare. In Nigeria, women are often the first teachers of their children; a comedian once said, “Behind every successful man, there is a woman, not his wife but his mother”. Although it is stressful to manage her new roles together with the traditional role, the traditional role of raising children must not suffer. When children are poorly socialized, the entire nation suffers. Women should desist from leaving the function of raising children to domestic staff alone. It would be better to further get the assistance of extended family members in raising the children; at least the cultural family values can be sustained.

Furthermore, Nigeria is a patriarchal society that places men above women; I believe the idea of feminism and gender equality is not to dominate men but to have equal opportunities and benefits. Hence, women should endeavor to still hold on to the family value of respect to husbands without being enslaved. In addition, the traditional parenting style needs to be revisited. Parents in the modern society have to take back their role as decision-makers for children. Parents should lead and guide children, and not children leading parents. Parents need to be firm in parenting, and this should not be for one gender alone, but for both boys and girls. Parents should be the final word giver in the family, especially when dealing with children who are not yet adults.


The structure of the Nigerian family has greatly changed with urbanization, globalization, and increased education of women. The paper has discussed in detail the historical state of Nigerian marriage and family in three epochs, and it was observed that there are some visible changes in some areas such as the fertility rate, age in marriage, the type of marriage and family, gender roles and parenting style. Thus, to have a balanced family and marriage for the common good of husband, wives, children, extended family members and the entire society, bonding time by family members should be prioritized, children should be socialized to match the changing society, civil law should be enforced, paternity leave should be made available to men and some traditional values in marriage and family should be upheld. This is because the family stands as a common good providing each member welfare, stability, emotional well-being, and a sense of belonging. 


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