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Population and Development Review: “The Effect on Fertility of the 2003–2011 War in Iraq”

New Study from Population and Development Review Finds Adolescent Childbearing in Iraq Has Risen Due to Increased Early Marriage Among Less-Educated Women

NEW YORK (15 December 2014) — A study published today is the first detailed assessment of whether the 8-year Iraq War had an effect on childbearing. The study found that before the war, from 1997 to 2003, adolescent fertility in Iraq was stable at just below 70 births per 1,000 girls aged 15–19. However, soon after the beginning of the war, adolescent fertility rose by more than 30 percent, reaching over 95 births per 1,000 girls in 2010. The study is included in the December 2014 issue of Population and Development Review, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Population Council.

“This increase is striking,” says author Valeria Cetorelli, a PhD candidate in demography at the London School of Economics and Political Science, “not only because adolescent fertility in Iraq moved from moderate to high, as classified by the United Nations, but because such a substantial increase in adolescent fertility over such a short period is nearly unprecedented. To address this situation, policymakers and civil society organizations in Iraq should expand adolescent girls’ access to secondary education, as well as take measures to restore an overall sense of security in their daily lives.”

The reason behind this rise in fertility, according to Cetorelli’s research, is increased early marriage among less-educated adolescents. Between 2003 and 2010, marriage increased sharply among females in the youngest age groups, but little among older females. Cetorelli found that the shift toward early childbearing occurred particularly among adolescent girls with no education or only primary schooling. Her research revealed a substantial drop in marital fertility across all age groups other than adolescents. She found the prevalence of early marriage and child bearing in Iraq among women with secondary or higher education to be relatively low and unchanging since 2003.

After the start of the war in 2003, many women were prevented from participating in public life or even from leaving their homes without a male escort, likely in response to the actual and perceived dangers of harassment and physical harm, as well as a resurgence of conservative social mores. In this context, families may consider early marriage the best way to protect their daughters and family honor.

“This trend is worrisome because women who marry during adolescence have lower status in the home and may be at higher risk for intimate partner violence than women who marry later,” said Cetorelli. “Early childbearing has been linked to higher maternal mortality and morbidity, as well as poorer health outcomes for children.”

“We know that decisions about schooling, marriage, and childbearing are inextricably linked for adolescent girls and their families in low-income settings,” said Population Council demographer Stephanie Psaki, who was not affiliated with the study. “This study highlights the importance of providing opportunities, including formal or nonformal education, for adolescent girls in conflict-affected settings to ensure that they are able to live healthy and productive lives when the conflict has ended.”

Cetorelli used retrospective birth history data from the 2006 and 2011 Iraq Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys to reconstruct annual fertility trends from 1997 to 2010, allowing for comparisons over a period spanning before and after the onset of the war.

The study, “The Effect on Fertility of the 2003–2011 War in Iraq,” is now available free of charge: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1728-4457.2014.00001.x/abstract.


Population and Development Review (PDR) seeks to advance knowledge of the relationships between population and social, economic, and environmental change and provides a forum for discussion of related issues of public policy. PDR is published quarterly on behalf of the Population Council by Wiley-Blackwell.

The Population Council conducts biomedical, social science, and public health research. We deliver solutions that lead to more effective policies, programs, and technologies that improve lives around the world.

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