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


I strongly agree with rao

I was born in Costa Rica. A very liberal country these days.
As a woman, I cannot walk fearing for my life in Costa Rica.
Crime is out of control!
We need more fathers to be involved in the life of children.
We need the law to do implement this.

trying to drag in race, is an attempt at making it appear to be a "minority issue". Blacks make up less than 15% of the population. so trying to say "71% of the blacks are having kids out of wedlock, but just 23% of whites do" is a clear attempt at trying to water down the fact that white people are the main ones doing it, because they are the main population...If there is ONE black in a country, and the rest are white, and there are 2 million whites, and 10% of them (200,000) are having out of wedlock kids, and so did the black, making a claim that "100% of blacks are having kids out of wedlock and only 10% of the whites are" is a racist spin post.

It is very sad that such an esteemed University cannot capture the entire World. Why is Africa not in the survey. This is very ignorant and sad

Oversexed men create these situations. There are drugs that reduce sexdrive.

When one Google's "how many children are born out of wedlock" the article comes up with featured words bringing a short paragraph..the one about RACE. This article wrongly implies that blacks or Hispanics are having more babies than whites..and that plays into racist Supremacy mentality. Because the truth is, if you go by a percentage oh, you will create a false narrative.

Let's say that 10% of the blacks had children out of wedlock. And only 5% of the whites had children out of wedlock. However, what if there are only 100 black people and 100000 white people? 5% would be more humans than 10% of the blacks, which would only be 10 people. Blacks and Hispanics do not make a large population in the United States. Since the problem is the amount of the births in the United States that are out of wedlock, the issue is having less births out of wedlock. So who cares about a percentage within a group, unless you want to try to make a false narrative that your people are better than the other people across the street? Typical wht racism

Thank you for pointing this out. YaleGlobal does not control which excerpt Google shows from our articles. Also, we do not know why the search engine selected text from the fifth paragraph of the article. Using the YaleGlobal search engine for Out-of-Wedlock Births Rise Worldwide shows the following:

"Out-of-wedlock childbirths have become more common worldwide since the 1960s, but ... celebrations and government assistance. In most countries, marriage still provides extra economic protection for parents and children, and …"

Illegitimate (as they legally call them) births are now at 53%. Where's all the P'noy (Filipino) pride on this one? Their famous "family values" they always tout about....

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.