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Citation Information

Type Thesis or Dissertation - Doctor of Philosophy
Title The relationship between single mothering and adolescents’ sexual behaviour in black families in urban South Africa: a retrospective analysis of the Birth to Twenty cohort
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2015
URL http://mobile.wiredspace.wits.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10539/18697/Dlamini Thesis 297546 final​2April2015.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
In South Africa, children are more likely to grow up in a single mother family than in any
other family structure. A single mother refers to a mother who is living with children
younger than 18 years of age and who is neither married nor living with a partner. A
recent report by Statistics South Africa (2012) showed that at national level, in 2011, there
were more children (42.5 %) aged below 5 years that lived with their biological mother only.
And almost half (45.6 %) of those children are black African children. At the beginning of the
Birth to Twenty cohort study, of the 3273 mothers and their children who were enrolled in
the study, 1800 (almost 55 %) of them were single mothers and about 80 % (1440) remained
single 10 years later. A wealth of research conducted abroad shows that children growing up
in single mother families are associated with sexual behaviour that may jeopardise their
South Africa provides an important setting in which to explore the relationship between
single mother families and their children’s sexual behaviour because of the statistics shown
above. There is currently little knowledge about the relationship between the duration and
timing of exposure to single mother families and the age of first sex for children. This thesis
attempts to address this research gap. Retrospective data from the Birth to Twenty cohort
(Bt20) was used to investigate whether there is an association between single mothering
and adolescent sexual behaviour in the South African context, and to examine the impact of
the duration and timing of exposure to single mother families for both adolescent males and
females. Lastly, it sought to test mediating factors such as father and extended family
involvement and other characteristics of the mother, like educational attainment and the
age at which she had the child, on the relationship. Of the 3273 children and their mothers
enrolled in the study in 1990, 1145 mother and their children were selected for this study
and the children were 19 years of age at time of interviews.
The study found that the average ages at first sex for children who have spent their entire
lives in single mother families (fully exposed) and those who have always been in twoparent
families (never exposed) are not significantly different from each other. Children who
have been in single mother families for only some of their lives showed lower average ages
at first sex, which suggests that they are more likely to start being sexually active at an early
age than the other two groups. Children who were found to have spent more time (more
than 9 years) in single mother families than in two-parent families were found to be at
higher risk than those who have been in two-parent and single mother families all their
lives. When children have been partially exposed to single mother families before age 11,
they are also more likely to engage in sexual activities than those who have been either fully
exposed to or not exposed to single mother families at the same age. After controlling for
demographic and socio-economic backgrounds, we found that maternal factors also have an
impact on the age at which children start having sex. Children were found to be more likely
to become sexually active before age 18 if they were born to a younger mother or a mother
who had only primary education or no formal education. In addition, boys were found to be
twice as likely to engage in sex by age 18 than girls, and were more than seven times likely
to engage in sex by age 15, keeping all factors constant. Non-resident father contact and
financial support are crucial determinants of delayed sexual activity at all developmental
stages, and extended family support is important in early and late childhood.
In conclusion, the main finding of this thesis is the importance of partial exposure to single
mother families. Children who have been partially exposed to single motherhood were
found to be at a higher risk of initiating sex earlier. This also shows how the instability of
family structure might be a factor in adolescent sexual onset and this affects both boys and
girls equally and at all developmental stages, despite the fact that boys are more prone to
engage in sex at an early age than girls.

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