(Boxes B and C of Figure 2-1) shape the opportunities for young people to acquire the stocks of human and social capital that they need for successful adulthood (Box D of Figure 2-1). This conceptualization leads to a context-specific definition of premature parenthood as parenthood that occurs at an age prior to the age at which most young people in that setting typically complete the minimal level of human capital accumulation.
The need for comparative analyses, however, has led the panel to choose two cutoffs to define adolescent parenthood: parenthood before age 18—the age of adulthood as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child—and parenthood before age 16. The latter of these, for young women, may be a legitimate absolute indicator of premature parenthood, since it is possible that pregnancy and birth before this age are dangerous to the mother and to the child for reasons that are biological and do not vary by setting or culture.
Table 8-3 presents data by region on the percentage of young women who become mothers by age 16 and by age 18. We focus the comparison on the differences between women born in the 1950s (women ages 40-44 in the table), women born in the 1960s (women ages 30-34 in the table), and women born in the 1970s (women ages 20-24 in the table).
The first thing to observe from the table is that over 10 percent of young women still have their first child before the age of 16 in Western and Middle Africa. In other regions, levels of childbearing at this early age range from less than 1 percent in the former Soviet Asia to almost 9 percent in Eastern and Southern Africa and in South Asia. Furthermore, in Western and Middle Africa, the percentage among the youngest cohort still having their first child below age 18 is over 30 percent. Substantial percentages persist for women having a first birth before age 18 in most regions, with over 20 percent in Southern Asia, Central America and the Caribbean, and Eastern and Southern Africa and 16 percent in South America.
The next thing to notice is that the pace of decline in rates of first parenthood by age varies dramatically across regions but is more similar within regions regardless of whether age 16 or age 18 is chosen as the critical measure of early parenthood. Among regions in which the percentage having very early first births (whether by 16 or 18) was substantial among the oldest cohort—Western and Middle Africa, Eastern and Southern Africa, and Southern Asia—declines have been largest in absolute terms and among the largest in percentage terms. In the Middle East, the declines have been largest in percentage terms, having started from a much lower base. In South America, where rates of early motherhood for the older cohort were much lower in comparative terms, there has been an actual