Delay Family Formation

Theyve already asked me to have children. I live in their houseI have to keep them happy. My husband has also asked me to have children. I said I wanted to wait for two years, but they said, No, you should have children now.So I guess I will have to have children now.

-Azima, 14 years, Bangladesh

Delaying marriage and childbirth is good for development...

but marriage has been the foundation of family formation almost everywhere in the world. It is only in recent decades that the dominance of marriage has shifted, and there is now mounting pressure on social norms that sanction marriage as the only path to economic security for girls. In the countries where marriage is a direct threat to women’s health, education, and labor market participation, especially in the countries where early marriage (<25 years) is common, delaying marriage and childbirth will accelerate development. In higher income countries the rising age of first marriage and later childbirth have already contributed to women’s increased education and labor market performance. Delaying marriage and childbirth and providing girls with opportunities to secure their economic futures through education and employment can be a powerful force for progress everywhere.

A smaller proportion of women of reproductive age (15 to 49 years) is married than at any other time in recorded history - 65% compared to 69% in 1970 - and the marriage rate is forecast to fall to 63% by 2030, according to the United Nations (UN). Although the prevalence of marriage has declined and the age of first marriage has risen in most low-, middle-, and high-income countries, in several Asian countries including China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Viet Nam the proportion of women who are married has actually risen in recent decades. Where Asia is home to the vast majority of the world’s 650 million women who were married as children, sub-Saharan African countries have the highest rates of child marriage and also struggle with very low secondary school attendance, high rates of adolescent births, maternal and newborn deaths, and intimate partner violence. In some west and central African countries, more than one quarter of all women aged 20 to 24 were married before the age of 15, according to UNICEF.

To reap the significant benefits of delaying marriage and childbirth, countries should set a new development goal of increasing the age of first marriage to 25 by 2025 and to 30 by 2030. Strategies to achieve these goals should include incentives to keep girls at school, female-friendly jobs growth, increased access to modern contraception, and enactment of legislation outlawing child marriage and its associated harmful practices (e.g., female genital cutting, dowry, etc). Over the long term, countries should encourage the formation of new family structures that protect and maximize the wellbeing of all family members and provide girls with options for family formation that do not come at the price of their education, economic independence, and wellbeing, or the health and survival of their children.

The UN and its agencies should expand the current focus on ending child marriage and initiate a new movement to delay the age of family formation, with a special focus on the countries where women and girls are paying a high price for forced or coerced early marriage and childbirth. Under the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN should encourage a global conversation about the creation of new family structures that offer all individuals equal opportunities to reach their full potentials and to develop and exercise their full capabilities.

Updated January 2024

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In the countries where marriage is a threat to women and girl’s health, education, and labor market opportunities, and a trigger for early childbirth, declining rates of marriage will further accelerate development. Nowhere is this more important than in the countries where child marriage is widely practiced, where girls’ secondary school completion rates are low, and where adolescent births and deaths in pregnancy and childbirth are high.