Expert Commentary

British colonial law linked to higher HIV rates among women in sub-Saharan Africa

The likelihood that a woman in sub-Saharan Africa has HIV today is linked to whether her country was once colonized by Britain or a continental European country.

flag colonial africa
Flag map of Colonial Africa in 1939 (Wikimedia Commons/DrRandomFactor)

The likelihood that a woman in sub-Saharan Africa has HIV today is linked to whether her country was once colonized by Britain or a continental European country, according to a June 2018 study published in American Economic Review.

Siwan Anderson, a professor at the Vancouver School of Economics, hypothesized that “weaker marital property rights” in common law countries “make women less able to negotiate safe sex with their husbands.” She found that HIV rates among women are significantly higher in sub-Saharan African countries that adhere to common law rather than civil law — a difference that depends on which European countries once colonized them.

Worldwide, there were 36.7 million people living with HIV in 2016, according to the latest data available from the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). Of those, 17.8 million were women aged 15 and older.  Approximately 80 percent of those women live in sub-Saharan Africa, Anderson writes in “Legal Origins and HIV.”

“Uniquely, it is the only place in the world where more women than men live with HIV,” Anderson writes.

Sub-Saharan African women aged 15–49 are, on average, three times more likely than men to be infected with HIV, she writes in her study.

Most African nations used to be colonized by European nations, which adhered to systems based on either civil or common law. The British colonies had a system of common law, while civil law was the law of the land in countries colonized by France, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Belgium.

As Anderson explains in her paper, both civil and common law systems in Europe evolved a great deal in the 1960s – specifically with regard to family law.  In short, the European systems were updated to give more rights to women.

But here’s the thing: The 1960s were also when many African countries were gaining independence, meaning they were not subject to the legal updates of their former colonists.  “The discussions and changes occurring in their former colonists with regards to family law were not paralleled on the African continent,” Anderson writes. Rather, with regard to rules regarding marital property, the African countries held on to the old rules.

“The traditionally advantageous treatment of women under civil versus common law regarding marital property has since been largely eroded in Western industrialized countries,” Anderson writes. “This is decidedly not the case in Africa. There, women have unambiguously weaker marital property rights in common law countries.”

Under traditional common law, women do not retain any rights to marital property (like a house or farm) if the marriage dissolves.  Civil law, on the other hand, “gives explicit protection to wives upon marital dissolution, typically splitting all martial property equally,” Anderson writes. “As a result, women in these common law countries have lower bargaining power within the household and are less able to negotiate safe sex practices and are thus more vulnerable to HIV, compared to their civil law counterparts.”

To gauge whether this vulnerability was linked to higher rates of HIV, Anderson looked at data from the Demographic and Health Surveys Program, which collects population and health data — including reported contraception use and the results of HIV blood tests — from individuals in more than 90 countries.  The studied sample included data from 308,000 women and 190,000 men across 25 sub-Saharan African countries. The dates for the surveys in the study spanned from 2000 to 2017.

Among the other key takeaways:

  • Female HIV infection rates are at least 25 percent higher in common law countries than in civil law countries.
  • Women living in common law countries are 30 percent less likely to use a contraception method requiring consent of a male partner, such as condoms or withdrawal — which are more effective in reducing the risk of HIV than methods that don’t require a male partner’s cooperation. (For example, while the birth control pill and the intrauterine device are effective birth control methods, they do not prevent HIV.)
  • HIV prevalence is not significantly higher among men who live in common law versus civil law countries.
  • In common law countries, women who are no longer married own less property than previously-married women in civil law countries.

When Journalist’s Resource asked Anderson about the policy implications of the research, she replied, via e-mail, that “the most important is legal reform to better protect women in the case of divorce or dissolution of marriage.”


For more information on HIV treatment, see our piece about a new delivery system antiretroviral therapy.  For more historical information on HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, see our 2012 research roundup.



The image in this post by DrRandomFactor was obtained from Wikimedia Commons and is published under a Creative Commons license.  It was cropped and resized for scale.



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