While the transition into marriage is a key component of the transition to adulthood in most contexts, marriage, in and of itself, is not necessarily a marker of adulthood, particularly for the numerous young women who wed during the teenage years. Substantial delays in the timing of marriage among most young people, however, are contributing to an overall lengthening of the interval between childhood and the assumption of adult roles.
Compared with previous generations, a smaller proportion of young women and men are married in most regions. Men still marry at older ages than women. While only one-third of men in the developing world are married by ages 20-24, nearly two-thirds of women are married in this age group. Moreover, in certain regions, most notably the Middle East, a large fraction of men now postpone marriage until their 30s.
The minimum legal age of marriage for both men and women has risen in many countries in the past decade, and women are less likely to be married during the teenage years than in the past. However, child marriage, defined as marriage prior to age 18, is still widespread and viewed by many as a major violation of human rights. On the basis of survey data representing 60 percent of the population of the developing world, 38 percent of young women ages 20-24 married before age 18 (down from 52 percent 20 years ago), with the highest rates of child marriage currently occurring in Western and Middle Africa and South Asia. Young women who marry as minors are more likely to come from poor households and rural areas and to have relatively few, if any, years of schooling.
The age gap between spouses—often thought of as a measure of the degree of equality in marriage—appears to be narrowing, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. There is also some evidence of growing agency on the part of young women with regard to choice of marriage partner, suggesting that the nature of marriage itself is changing.
As in the past, entry into marriage is strongly associated with entry into parenthood. Over 90 percent of first births occur within marriage, and this percentage has changed only minimally over the past 20 years. With rising ages of marriage, the age of parenthood has been rising, but the gap between age at marriage and age at first birth has narrowed, falling from 22 to 16 months on average over the past 20 years. These postponements of marriage and parenthood allow young people more time to prepare for adult roles and provide an increasing number of young women with the opportunity to participate in the labor force prior to becoming a parent.
Rates of early childbearing remain high in many parts of the developing world because of high rates of early marriage, as noted above. Based on