Out-of-Wedlock Births Rise Worldwide

Out-of-wedlock childbirths have become more common worldwide since the 1960s, but with wide variations among and within countries. Inreasing economic independence and education combined with modern birth control methods have given women more control over family planning. In about 25 countries, including China, India and much of Africa, the proportion of such births is typically around 1 percent, explains Joseph Chamie, a demographer and a former director of the United Nations Population Division. In another 25 countries, mostly in Latin America, more than 60 percent of births are out-of-wedlock, a big jump from just 50 years ago. The rates of such births often coincide with public responses which range from severe punishments and stigmatization of children to celebrations and government assistance. In most countries, marriage still provides extra economic protection for parents and children, and governments struggle on how to respond to the trends. “Marriage has become less necessary for women’s financial survival, social interaction and personal wellbeing, and government policies have been slow to keep pace,” Chamie notes. “Like it or not, out-of-wedlock births are in transition worldwide and create challenges for many societies.” – YaleGlobal

Out-of-Wedlock Births Rise Worldwide

Out-of-wedlock childbirth has soared worldwide since the 1960s, and many governments struggle to respond
Joseph Chamie
Thursday, March 16, 2017

Shifting culture: Women's increasing economic independence contributes to more children born outside of marriage, though acceptance varies widely among countries; throughout much of Latin America, out-of-wedlock births are the norm, left, but some travel guides to parts of Asia and Africa advise couples to pretend they are married 

NEW YORK: Of the world’s 140 million births that happened in 2016, about 15 percent - or 21 million – were born out of wedlock. This global average, however, does not reflect the enormous variation in the proportion of births outside of marriage across countries and regions.

At one extreme are some 25 countries, including China, India and most countries in North Africa and Western and Southern Asia, where the proportion of births out of wedlock is low, typically less than 1 percent.  In those societies births outside of marriage carry strong social disapproval, including sanctions, penalties and punishments to the mother and father as well as stigmatization of the child. Some travel guides advise couples to pretend to be married. In striking contrast, the proportions of births outside marriage in another 25 countries mostly in Latin America, including Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico and Colombia, are estimated at more than 60 percent. In another 20 countries, including Belgium, Denmark, France, Norway and Sweden, the majority of births occur outside marriage, with government assistance typically provided to single mothers.

Marriage has become less necessary for women’s financial survival, social interaction and personal wellbeing, and government policies have been slow to keep pace. Like it or not, out-of-wedlock births are in transition worldwide and create challenges for many societies. Increasingly single women and cohabiting couples, especially in Western societies, elect to have children and raise them outside the institution of marriage. In many countries, marriage is no longer viewed as the only acceptable institution for childbearing and long-term intimate relationships.

Source: OECD

The high incidence of childbearing out of wedlock is a relatively recent phenomenon. The proportions of such births a half century ago were substantially lower than today. For example, in 1964 most countries in the Organisation of Economic and Co-operative Development had no more than 10 percent of their births outside of marriage. By 2014 in only five countries – Greece, Israel, Japan, South Korea and Turkey – were the proportions of births out of wedlock below 10 percent. In the large majority of more developed countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, more than one-third of all births take place out of wedlock. 

Again, national averages do not reflect the considerable variation in non-marital childbearing within countries. In the United States, for example, significant differences in out- of-wedlock births exist among major social groups. While the national average for the United States in 2014 is 40 percent, the proportions of births out of wedlock for whites are 29 percent; Hispanics, 53 percent; and blacks, 71 percent. The proportions of such births for those groups were lower 50 years ago.

Many of the children born out of wedlock live in single-parent households, typically headed by single mothers. The proportions of children living in single-parent households vary considerably across countries. At the lowest levels where 10 percent or less of the children live in single-parent families are three dozen mainly developing countries, including China, India, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan and Turkey. And high levels of single-parent families are found in Latin Africa countries where close to 40 percent of the children live with mothers only and about 4 percent live with fathers only. Other countries with high levels of children in sole-parent households – typically a single mother – include Mozambique, 36 percent; Dominican Republic, 35 percent; Liberia, 31 percent; and Kenya, 30 percent.

Over the past several decades the incidence of single-parent families has generally increased worldwide, with the largest increases in industrialized countries. Between 1980 and 2005, for example, the proportion of single-parent households doubled for many developed countries, including France, Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Note, a woman having a non-marital birth does not necessarily translate into a single-parent household. Often non-marital births occur to cohabiting couples, who increasingly choose to continue cohabiting rather than marry.

Among OECD countries, children (infants to age 17) living with two cohabiting parents are increasingly common. While the average OECD proportion of children living with two married parents declined from 72 to 67 percent between 2005 and 2014, the proportion living with cohabiting parents increased from 10 to 15 percent over that decade. The highest proportions are observed in five countries – Estonia, France, Iceland, Slovenia and Sweden – where one quarter of the children are living with cohabiting parents. And in Austria, Canada, Denmark, Hungary, the United Kingdom and the United States, more than one fifth of the children live with a sole parent, which substantially exceeds the proportion of children with cohabiting parents.

Source: US National Center for Health Statistics

Reasons vary for the growing preference of many young couples to cohabit rather than marriage. In many countries, both developed and developing, cohabitation does not carry the same stigma or social taboo as in the past, especially in urban areas with the relative anonymity and tolerance of diversity.

Cohabitation permits women and men to explore living with a partner in an intimate relationship. Rather than review hypotheticals, couples try the arrangement and assess for themselves whether they are willing make a long-term commitment. Cohabiting allows individuals to test compatibility with a partner while keeping options open.  

In the United States most women who marry for the first time cohabit first. Also in China growing numbers of couples are cohabiting before marriage, with surveys finding that approximately 60 percent of those born in the 1980s had lived together before marriage. Even in Iran increasing numbers of young couples in urban centers are living together, locally called “White Marriages” because their marriage status page is left blank in their national identification certificates.

Young couples are aware of divorce statistics and consequences of divorce, even without children involved, and for many, cohabitation is a hedge against divorce. In addition to escaping costly wedding expenses, cohabiting couples avoid the legal complications, family entanglements, emotional stress and financial costs associated with divorce proceedings.   

Source: OECD

With their changing roles and status in society, especially at the workplace, women have become more economically and socially independent. Also, with the availability of modern birth control methods, women have gained control over reproduction. Worldwide women now outnumber men in both university attendance and graduation.

Nevertheless, marriage continues to have clear advantages over cohabitation in most countries. Married couples receive many legal and economic benefits not available to unmarried couples. The United States offers more than 1000 benefits.. For example, being married by and large means a spouse has the legal right to receive property settlements, visitation rights, travel benefits, tax breaks as well as financial support if divorce occurs. Also, in the event of death, marriage generally entitles the surviving spouse to the couple’s property and wealth, including survivor’s benefits from retirement and pension schemes.

Various groups and organizations, including many religious institutions, have expressed serious concerns with some pressing for restrictive policies to the growing incidence and acceptance of out of wedlock births. They consider the decoupling of sexual relations and procreation from marriage as a serious problem undermining the institution of marriage, the centrality of the family for childrearing and the overall stability and wellbeing of society.  

While some countries have recognized the significant changes in childbearing and marriage over the past half-century, they continue to struggle on how to address the consequences. Most traditional countries in Asia and North Africa continue to consider out-of-wedlock births and cohabitation as totally unacceptable behavior. Other countries are gradually taking steps to loosen their laws and programs to the new realities.

Irrespective of the views and government policies, in too many instances the children born out of wedlock are disadvantaged and fail to receive the necessary protections, support and assistance to ensure their health, development and wellbeing. Unfortunately, this challenge, too often ignored to the detriment of the children, communities and countries, must be addressed.

Joseph Chamie is an independent consulting demographer and a former director of the United Nations Population Division.

Copyright © 2017 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center


At least in the US, nonmarital births are at least partially a function of the education level. As a 2016 study published by the National Institutes of Health, “Diverging Patterns in Marriage, Cohabitation, and Childbearing,” has noted, the nonmarital birthrate for college-educated women was 5 percent in 1980; it grew to 11 percent in 2013. For women with high school diplomas, it grew from 24 percent in 1980 to 58 percent in 2013. Given these statistics, it becomes paramount that governments do not disadvantage the children born out of wedlock to prevent entrapment of a large segment of single mother households into an intergenerational vicious cycle of low education levels (and the resulting socio-economic disadvantages).

Thanks for the data. But you have drawn the wrong conclusions.

Yes, adults do cohabit for some of the reasons you mention - there is no proof showing that cohabiting couples do actually build better marriages when they do marry. So, on paper, there are no positives to cohabitation. But in the research, there are a lot of negatives when it comes to cohabitation. The biggest problem is that many cohabiting couples do separate during the time they are raising children - much more so than married couples - so in order to avoid the legal outcomes that divorce creates, more children end up getting hurt, and society has to pay the bill. Adults are meant to protect children - and they do that by marrying. And marrying allows the couple time to work things out instead of just walking out the door.

Also, children born to single mothers do experience greater risks. But the more that the government does to help these families, the more women have children out of wedlock. A spiral away from marriage occurs, And because the children suffer poorer outcomes, crime rises, prisons fill up, more deaths from drug overdoses occur, and eventually, a country goes heavily into debt. This is the situation of all European countries now - countries with a welfare system that keeps picking up the bill of family distress. Now you may not mind if a nation goes bankrupt,,, but most of us do. Most of us want to be able to retire and know our pension is safe. So the only solution is to get back to a healthier marital-family norm. How a nation does that when society is becoming increasingly anti-marriage is going to be hard. But since you are so good at data you can think about why, even in good times, the UK is still spending 100 billion more than it takes in in taxes. This debt is growing directly in line with the growth of divorce and the rise of single parenting. One day, soon, the debt will be too large to pay back. You will then see where your "The state has to do more to support single mothers' has taken us. Civilizations can only survive based on a reasonably health marital-family norm. Take that away and we increasingly become uncivilized.

Unfortunately Stephen, we are the few voices in the wilderness of "do gooders" and "bleeding hearts", so much in the majority of western countries these days.
In Australia, a lot of these mothers (and fathers) are drug addicts, and our governments actually pays them to support their children. Well guess what, majority of the money goes to the drugs not the kids. Only an insane person would take working people's money and pay it to drug addicts to have children to fund their habit. If anyone dares become a voice for reason, its always, " you cannot disadvantage the children". By financially supporting these people you automatically condemn these children to a miserable life.
This situation and similar ones are now ruining the western country economics, not to mention the very fabric of our societies. On a personal note, the rise in the numbers of these people in suburbia does not make life pleasant - let's just say they often do not make good neighbours. Every now and again, I seriously contemplate moving to another country where these people are not encouraged, and I will not be taxed to the hilt (33% in Australia at present and counting!). This is another side affect of this thinking - if you tax working people too much, it doesn't encourage them to do better, and maybe encourages a small but steady stream of the working class and small businesses to look for a better life elsewhere.
Just my two cents worth.....

If people will take the time to consider what GOD has said in Malachi chapter 2 they will see that HE is quite explicit about the consequences of divorce and children that are born out of wedlock, Society is in a spiral of ungodliness due to our inability to use common sense based on the WORD of GOD that has warned us about this.


I strongly support Stephen's view.

The most important comments were delivered in the last paragraph. To the detriment of the children..... Dads that leave the mother to raise the child alone - worthless, irresponsible and most of all, selfish. Moms that want to be a mommy when they themselves are children and uneducated. Or they both made really poor relationship decisions and had no backup plan when it fails or just default parenting to the grandparents.

The crime rate for single parent children v/s those raised by 2 parents has been proven in multiple studies - yet no real solutions are offered to reduce this as it is not inline with the progressive agenda - do what ever feels good, sex with anyone you want, shortsighted thinking and no discourse about personal responsibility - everyone is blameless because of societal issues. Those countries that are in the early stages of this change in parenting preferences will see their poverty rate increase along with crime that follows.

This is NOT good.

The more children there are born out of wedlock, the more broken down society will become. Studies after studies have shown children born in such environment are more likely to engage in promiscuity, criminal acts, drugs, gangs, etc. The future is looking grim for these societies.

Not sure how legitimate these statistics are but considering this piece is associated with Yale, a guy who used to work at the UN, etc., I think it's fair to say that things probably aren't overestimated ;)

Obviously, having a bunch of kids born out-of-wedlock and/or being raised by a single parent is no way for a society to thrive moving forward.

Good job to the Asian countries like Japan and South Korea - keep the bad influences out.

Interesting how Israel is at the bottom but members of its people have an undue influence on things like media, education, finance, etc. :)

I am no moralist , but a healthy : physically, morally, socially , mentally adult appears to be the product of loving relationship of parents to the child . It is much less for out of wedlock children. It is sad.

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