Families in Africa: Demographic Trends and Families

The United Nations 1993 set aside 15 May yearly as an international day for commemorating families. This day provides an opportunity to promote awareness of families’ issues and increase the knowledge of the social, economic and demographic processes affecting families. Families exist everywhere in the world to bear and rear children, to care for and protect vulnerable members during childhood, old age, illness, and misfortune, and to meet our relational needs.

Families are the bedrock of cultural traditions, norms and values, and behaviour patterns transmitted from generation to generation. Families play key roles regarding their children's educational outcomes and mental and physical well-being. As the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated in 2010:

“At the international level, the family is appreciated but not prioritized in development efforts. The very contribution of families to the achievement of development goals continues to be largely overlooked, while there seems to be a consensus on the fact that, so far, the stability and cohesiveness of communities and societies largely rest on the strength of the family.”

Thus, families are essential as the best platform for influencing living standards, yet they must be adequately prioritised in development efforts. As part of achieving the global ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), family policies are vital in meeting targets across many goals. In recognition of the role of families as the basic social unit of societies, the enactment of family policies globally continues to grow, encompassing conditional and unconditional cash transfers, child allowances, maternity and parental leave, and preschool education and care policies.

Do family types matter?

Questions continue to be raised about the influence of family form on child mental health. For instance, are two parents better than one for children’s mental health; do heterosexual couples make it easier for children and adolescents to enjoy mental health than same-sex parents; are small families better than prominent extended families?

Regardless of their form, families profoundly impact children’s health and well-being, and they play an active role in creating the social environment in which children develop. This family environment must be conducive and stimulating. Families should be responsive, inclusive, nurturing and consistent in providing children’s holistic needs at all stages of development.

Families would be dysfunctional if they are marked by violence and substance abuse but should mitigate the effects of risk factors at a community level by establishing a healthy home environment, interacting with a child’s school, and monitoring or managing engagements with peers. Similarly, a child’s self-esteem, coping skills and social skills that help mitigate mental health problems can be attributed to healthy family communications, the modelling of good social and coping skills, and responsive caregiving that promotes secure attachment within family relationships.

Families living under overwhelming stress and hardship or experiencing shocks are more vulnerable to poor outcomes for adults and children, i.e., the risk factors outweigh the protective factors. For example, a genetic predisposition to parental mental ill health can create an unstable environment filled with tension and influences parent behaviour and interactions with their child. Perhaps it is not the type of family, but the nature of care in the family determines psychological and behavioural outcomes for children. With this in mind, there is a need for more research and programming regarding families in Africa.

Families are the bedrock of cultural traditions, norms and values, and behaviour patterns transmitted from generation to generation. Families play key roles regarding their children's educational outcomes and mental and physical well-being.


The theme for the 2023 International Day Celebrations is Demographic Trends and Families. Therefore, it is essential to analyse families' demographic trends, especially in Africa. While families are universal, they are not uniform concerning size, gender, age groups or even whether they are based on biological or social connections.

The conventional type of family is the nuclear family comprising two parents and their biological children. It is credited with more and better emotional and economic support and care for children due to biological relatedness. They constitute about a quarter of the families with children globally.

Next is the number of single-parent families, which is increasing, especially in Africa. About 15% of children live in single-parent families worldwide, and women head approximately 85% of these households. Indeed, marriage rates are declining, with childbearing outside of marriage – or nonmarital childbearing – increasing in many regions.

In South Africa, only a third of children live with both of their parents or in nuclear families, while close to half of children are growing up with absent but living fathers. Women-headed families tend to be economically disadvantaged though they invest more in their children’s education. Some single-parenting families arise from divorce, migration and widowhood. Divorce, on the rise in Africa and globally, is often necessary to prevent various forms of domestic abuse.

Research on divorce, however, indicates a range of adverse outcomes for children, such as greater vulnerability to poverty, educational failure, early and risky sexual activity, non-marital childbirth, early or child marriage, and divorce. Related to this is the phenomenon of single-person families, which is increasing significantly in the developed world, accounting for 11.8% of total families.

Stepfamilies are one interesting family type which is increasing in recent years. 10% of children in the USA and 15% in the UK live in stepfamilies. In Africa, less than 5% of children live in stepfamilies. Though some children adjust to stepfamilies and show resilience, others face adjustment challenges, including delinquency, poor schooling outcomes, substance abuse, poor academic achievement, and suicidality. Unfortunately, stepfamilies are historically (remember the Cinderella Films) and presently associated with abuse, neglect and adversarial relationships due to absent biological and legal relatedness.

Extended families are another type of family, declining globally but increasing in Africa. These families represent a valuable resource for African children. Though they may have disadvantages, extended families are the most prevalent forms of care outside nuclear families. Cohabitation is also increasing. The rate is also growing in Southern African countries, where cohabitation is relatively higher. Rather than replacing marriage, it is becoming an accepted life stage, as this type of living arrangement precedes many marriages. Additionally, the proportion of never-married women is also increasing. While it varies across countries, this proportion has increased by about 50% in most countries.

Article submitted by Samson Mhizha


The Future Africa Research Leader Fellowship (FAR-LeaF) is a fellowship programme, focussed on developing transdisciplinary research and leadership skills, to address the complex, inter-linked challenges of health, well-being, and environmental risks in Africa.