‘Behaving well’: the transition to respectable womanhood in rural South Africa

Christie Sennott, Sanyu A. Mojola

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Few studies of the transition to adulthood in Africa analyse young people’s own definitions of the events that confer adult status, and how adulthood is actually attained. This paper examines the experience of transitioning to womanhood in rural Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, drawing on interviews with 18 women aged 18–39. Three primary experiences characterised this transition: puberty and emerging body awareness, spending time with boys, and having a child. More important than the timing of these experiences, however, was whether women ‘behaved well’ and maintained respectability as they transitioned to adulthood. Behavioural standards reinforcing ideal femininity were focused on dress, manner and talk, and were particularly stringent for mothers. Findings emphasise the value of emic models of adulthood for understanding how youth experience this transition and provide an important counter-narrative to the literature focused primarily on the risk African youth face during this period of change in the life course.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)781-795
Number of pages15
JournalCulture, Health and Sexuality
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 3 2017
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


  • South Africa
  • sexual development
  • transition to adulthood
  • womanhood
  • young women


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