2011 International Conference on Family Planning
29 November–2 December 2011
Despite its important population policy implications, the relationship between age at first marriage and first birth interval (FBI) has not received adequate attention in the literature. Although delayed marriage is often featured in policy discussions as an effective strategy to delay childbearing, it is commonly observed that in settings that marry substantially later than menarche, women observe a shorter birth interval, particularly when contraception is not practiced. Similarly, in early marrying regimes, longer FBIs are observed consistently (Trussel & Reinis, 1989). In the limited literature on this topic, the pattern of such behaviors, particularly in late marrying regimes, have been attributed to transformation in attitudes about sexuality outside of marriage and changing marriage practices from arranged to romantic unions that reduce the length of the FBI among couples that are impatient to establish fertility soon after marriage (Malhotra &Tsui, 1996; Feng & Quanhe 1996; Shrestha 1998; Hong, 2006). The more consistently observed patterns of FBI in early marrying regimes however are understood less clearly.
In this paper we explore the determinants of FBI in late and early marrying regimes and explore explanations that focus on marriage norms. We propose that underlying biological mechanisms related to the fecundity of women at the time of marriage govern FBI and subsequently shape the norms surrounding childbearing. Thus, we hypothesize that delayed pregnancy and first births may be expected to play out differently in early and late marrying settings. In early marrying regimes, particularly where marriage is early enough so that substantial proportions of young women are sub-fecund when they marry, a long first birth interval is the norm, and there is less of a cultural compulsion to have children soon after marriage. In late marrying societies, where marriage often takes place when young women are in their highest periods of fecundity, societies are impatient to establish fertility through pregnancy. We hypothesize also that these patterns have important implications for family planning policy in each setting and that the acceptance of contraceptives during the FBI will differ by marriage regime as well.
To explore these questions, we use data on ever-married women from the most recent Demographic Health Surveys (DHS) conducted in Bangladesh (2007) and Egypt (2008), representing an early and a late marrying country case respectively. We estimate the determinants of FBI, our key dependent variable, using measures of age at first marriage and the use of contraceptives during the FBI as our main explanatory variables. These variables are operationalized at both the individual and divisional levels to capture biological and social norm level influences on the FBI respectively. Both multi-level multivariate models and discrete time hazard models are utilized to estimate these effects, controlling for education, socioeconomic status and a range of country and region specific variables. To account for the experience of varying sexual and reproductive norms within the same setting, analyses for each country are stratified by the youngest and oldest marriage cohorts.
In our multivariate multilevel models for Bangladesh and Egypt, we confirm that for the youngest marriage cohort, women who marry early have a longer FBI relative to those who marry late. Only limited support is found for the notion that early marrying communities are more likely than late marrying communities to subsequently delay first births by adopting social norms that encourage later births and contraception before first birth. While this relationship is found to hold and explains variation within Bangladesh across districts that vary in the timing of marriage, it does not hold in country level comparisons between Bangladesh and Egypt. We find that contraceptive use during the FBI is a significant predictor of the FBI in both countries, despite the countries being drastically different contraceptive use regimes, suggesting that contraceptive use itself might be a key component of the emergent social norm around childbearing. We test this assertion by estimating models of the determinants of contraceptive use during the FBI, predicting use by younger cohorts as a result of social norms set in motion by older generations. Such social normative influences however only held for Bangladesh.
This paper brings new evidence to light on the role of social norms and their influence on fertility and related behaviors. As such it helps to promote a better understanding of factors that help or hinder behavior change in childbearing, particularly by exploring the role of contraceptive use in early and late marrying regimes. The paper offers a partial explanation of variation in contraceptive uptake in the FBI in Bangladesh and Egypt as well as the variations within Bangladesh. Varying levels of contraceptive use, age at marriage and consequent fertility levels within countries have long baffled policy-makers and program managers. This paper provides the first steps towards understanding these relationships better.
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