There are just over 1.5 million women with children under the age of two in South Africa. In this country, the trend toward single motherhood is not new and 28% of women are single parents.
More than half (53%) of these women have never been married and are not living with their partners, according to the All Media Products Survey 2008. Of this segment, 50% are unemployed, according to the previous All Media Products Survey (2007).
The African spirit of ubuntu and community connectedness often means that a single mother does not have to accept sole responsibility for the child and many children are often reared with the support of the community. In South Africa, the number of individuals receiving child support grants increased from 280,000 in 2004 to 7,506,000 in 2007, according to the General Household Survey 2007.
A child out of wedlock also does not carry the stigma attached in many other developing countries, as it is seen as a promising sign of fertility prior to marriage.
A worldwide trend
But this is by no means a purely South African phenomenon: single motherhood is on the increase in the developed world, according to a US study.
The study shows that 40% of births are now to unwed mothers, and most of these are to women in their 20s, not teenagers, according to a report, Changing Patterns of Non-marital Childbearing, released by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the United States, out-of-wedlock births increased by 26% between 2002 and 2007, according to the report. In 1980, the rate of out-of-wedlock births was 18%.
Though the reasons for the increase are not clear, one factor might be that having a child when you're not married is no longer stigmatised, according to Stephanie J Ventura, director of the Reproductive Statistics Branch at the CDC's National Centre for Health Statistics and author of the report.
"The whole thing about social disapproval pretty much evaporated in the last 10 or 15 years, and it's even more so now," Ventura said.
Also, the numbers of women having out-of-wedlock births in the United States is so large and widespread in all population groups that it cannot be accounted for by socio-economic factors, Ventura said.
Out-of-wedlock babies at higher risk
The trends, though, are concerning, she said. "Births to unmarried women are at higher risk for poorer birth outcome," Ventura said. "These babies are more likely to be low birth weight, be preterm and die in infancy. Other research has shown that children are better off being raised in two-parent families."
In addition, because most of these births are unplanned, she said, there could be substantial public health concerns.
Many Americans don't take having children seriously, said Bill Albert, a spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "This puts the nail in the coffin of this misperception most Americans have that non-marital childbearing is something that is primarily a teen activity," Albert said.
Also, the report confirms that the United States is not alone in the high rate of out-of-wedlock births, he said, adding that "this is not a social and cultural revolution that is unique to the United States."
The real issue, Albert said, is the welfare of these children. "We now have about two decades of good social science research that comes to the conclusion that, as a general matter, children do better in low-conflict, loving, two-parent families," he added.
"There needs to be more education about the responsibility that goes along with having children, as well as education about contraception," he added.
"Young people need to understand that having children and raising children is a rewarding, but extremely challenging task," Albert said. "It is not something that should be undertaken lightly. As a general matter, everyone needs to take the important issue of sex, contraception, pregnancy and childbearing seriously."
Trend in other developed countries
For comparison, Ventura looked at out-of-wedlock births in other industrialised countries between 1980 and 2007 and found a dramatic increase there as well. The largest increases were seen in the Netherlands, where out-of-wedlock births rose from 4 to 40%. In Spain, out-of-wedlock births increased from 4% to 28%, in Ireland the numbers went from 5 to 33% and in Italy they rose from 4 to 21%.
Other findings in the report include:
- Countries with a higher percentage of births to unwed mothers than recorded in the United States include Iceland (66%), Sweden (55 %), Norway (54 %), France (50 %), Denmark (46 %) and the UK. (44 %).
- Countries with lower rates of out-of-wedlock births than the United States include Ireland (33 %), Germany (30 %), Canada (30 %), Spain (28 %), Italy (21 %) and Japan (2 %).
– (Steven Reinberg/HealthDay, May 2009)
Beating single-parent burnout