Family Background and Early Life Course Transitions in Kinshasa

By Tambashe, B. Oleko; Shapiro, David | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 1996 | Go to article overview

Family Background and Early Life Course Transitions in Kinshasa


Tambashe, B. Oleko, Shapiro, David, Journal of Marriage and Family


Drawing on a sample of approximately 2,400 women aged 13-49 surveyed in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1990, this article examines the impact of aspects of a woman's family background on transitions to sexual activity, marriage, and motherhood. We document how parental education, parental survival status, the number of siblings, and the type of place where a woman grew up are important for these transitions to adult roles. Our findings suggest that continued increases in educational levels should contribute to delays in these life course transitions and ultimately to some reductions in fertility.

Key Words: family background, life course transitions, sub-Saharan Africa.

In sub-Saharan Africa, marriage is universal and occurs at relatively early ages. Initiation of sexual activity also occurs early and often prior to marriage (Gage & Meekers, 1994). In such an environment, age at first birth is a key determinant of a woman's ultimate level of fertility, whereas age at first marriage may be a poor indicator of the onset of childbearing. As a result, age at first intercourse may be a more meaningful proximate determinant of the timing of the first birth.

Early sexual activity often is unprotected in sub-Saharan Africa, where (modern) contraceptive use is not common (Gage-Brandon & Meekers, 1993; National Research Council, 1993a, 1993b). Consequently, the younger a woman is when she begins having sexual intercourse, the sooner she is exposed to reproductive health hazards and to the risk of becoming pregnant. Through pregnancy, a young woman's sexual behavior may lead to induced abortion or to childbearing and teenage marriage, all of which may exact a heavy toll on her educational and socioeconomic aspirations and accomplishments.

From a life course perspective, both marriage and childbearing are key milestones in the transition to adulthood (Bozon, 1993; Hogan, 1986). Yet early marriage and especially early motherhood have adverse socioeconomic consequences for women. Where school regulations do not allow pregnant girls to stay in school, as is the case in most of sub-Saharan Africa (United Nations, 1994), the age at which a woman becomes pregnant and has her first birth is critical to her educational and occupational goals and attainments. Indeed, younger childbearers complete significantly less schooling than late initiators. As a result, young mothers are more likely to have little control over decisions about resource allocation within the household and to take on traditional roles that foster high fertility aspirations (Lloyd, 1994). Further, the establishment of a family during the teenage years is likely to have an adverse effect on a woman's prospects for participation in the labor market, her earnings potential, and general economic well-being. Thus, an early age at family formation sets in motion a cycle of disadvantages that tends to perpetuate high fertility and poverty.

This article focuses on the influence of family background characteristics on the timing of early life course transitions. More specifically, we examine differences in age at entry into sexual activity, age at first marriage, and age at first birth, with emphasis on determining the impact of the characteristics of a woman's family background on the likelihood of early transition to adulthood. In traditional African societies where entry into marriage and the choice of a spouse are very much the affairs of families and clans rather than individuals, the characteristics of the woman's family of origin may be of paramount importance in explaining her early life course transitions. We hypothesize that family background (e.g., parental schooling, parental survival status, the number of the respondent's siblings, and the type of place where a woman grew up) may determine a young woman's attitudes and tastes as well as her future socioeconomic well-being and may, thereby, influence key fertility decisions, especially at early stages in her life cycle. …

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