In 2016 more than 13 million girls will be born in sub-Saharan African countries where armed conflicts are taking place. New research suggests these girls will begin intentional childbearing at an earlier age than girls who are not born into conflict. Harvard University researchers Jocelyn Finlay and Jewel Gausman shift the lens on conflict and childbearing away from the gender- and sexual-based violence framework in which the issue is often discussed, to consider conflict’s effects on a key life course transition—the timing of the birth of the first child.

Finlay and Gausman hypothesize that the stress caused by exposure to armed conflict early in life affects women over the life course by weakening bonds between mothers and daughters, leading daughters to begin intentional childbearing at an earlier age. In view of multiple conflicts throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the connection between earlier ages of first births and higher fertility, conflict may be one reason fertility remains persistently high in the region.

Using pooled data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program and from Demographic and Health Surveys from 36 countries, Finlay and Gausman found women who were born into armed conflict had their first births on average four months earlier than women not born into conflict (see figure). Controlling for education, the difference increases to more than eight months for women with no education and disappears for women with secondary or higher levels of education. The effects are consistent across the age spectrum.

While Finlay and Gausman control for factors such as residence and wealth, as well as for country-specific and temporal factors, they want to dig deeper to test the conflict-early childbearing life course hypothesis. Over the coming months they will be conducting qualitative research in Burundi while their Harvard colleague Theresa Betancourt, an authority on the development and psychosocial consequences of conflict on children and families, looks at the question in Sierra Leone. Watch this space in 2017 for the next chapter of the story.


Sources: Analysis of data by Population Reference Bureau from United Nations (UN), Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision (New York: UN, 2015) and Uppsala University, “Uppsala Conflict Data Program,” accessed at, on June 21, 2016; and Jocelyn E. Finlay and Jewel Gausman, “Armed Conflict, Vulnerability, and Adolescent Childbearing in Sub-Saharan Africa,” draft working paper, Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.