first-time parents’ project in Gujurat and West Bengal is fairly unusual in its focus on young married women at the time of first birth. The intervention is currently under way and will be evaluated using a quasi-experimental design. It provides information and services to young married women, their husbands, and their families in two communities using both home visits and group membership activities that take place during pregnancy and during the postpartum period.
Our review of the literature and our data analysis lead to the following conclusions:
While parenthood remains nearly universal in all societies, the timing and context in which young women experience this transition remain highly variable across the developing world. In every society, young men become parents at later ages than young women, allowing them more time to invest and prepare for their responsibilities as parents.
In many parts of the developing world, rates of early childbearing remain substantial. The percentage of young people giving birth before age 18—the internationally recognized age of adulthood as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child—remains in excess of 30 percent in Western and Middle Africa and in excess of 20 percent in South-central and Southeastern Asia, Eastern and Southern Africa, and Central America and the Carribean. In some countries of these regions, over 10 percent have had a birth before the age of 16.
While the percentage of young women having a birth before the age of 16 or 18 is declining almost everywhere, rates of decline vary substantially. The highest rates of decline have occurred in the Middle East, starting from a very low base, and declines have also been substantial in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. In South America, where rates have been comparatively low, there has been some increase in early childbearing in recent years. The prevalence of early childbearing is highest among poor countries and, within countries, among rural residents and the least educated.
In some regions, most young women make the transition to motherhood quite quickly after a certain age, while in other regions, ages of first motherhood are spread out over a much longer period. In the Middle East and South America, the range of ages across which women have their first birth,