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How Family Life Differs in Central and South America

As a region, Central and South America have many countries with lower marriage and higher cohabitation and non-marital childbearing rates than just about any other region in the world–including Europe and North America. These are just a few of the findings highlighted earlier this month at events held in Lima and Piura, Peru, to mark the  international release of Child Trends’ World Family Map:  Mapping Family Change and Child Well-being Outcomes.

peru-woman-and-child

The report, now available in Spanish, is generating interest in the research, policy and media arenas in Peru, where the family as a social institution is highly valued.  Colleagues from the Institute of Family Sciences at the University of Piura organized two days of meetings with university professors from Lima and Piura, as well as a press conference with outside experts, journalists and policymakers. Child Trends had the opportunity to participate in these meetings, and presented results from the report’s essay on children’s living arrangements and educational outcomes. During the meetings, attendees expressed concern about a dramatic drop in fertility rates in Peru and Latin America, as well as the high rates of births to unmarried couples and how this trend may affect child well-being in the future.

Among the nine Central and South American countries included in the report, (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Peru), there are substantial proportions of children being raised by single parents, more so than in any other region, with moderate levels of extended families. Some of the other report findings from the region include:

  • Well over half of children in this region were born to unmarried mothers, with Columbia registering the highest level of all countries (85 percent);
  • The percent of children living with single parents ranged from 16 percent in Bolivia to 35 percent in Columbia;
  • At least 40 percent of children were living with extended family members;
  • Less than 40 percent of adults were married;
  • Between 12 (Chile) and 39 percent (Columbia) of adults aged 18-49 lived in cohabiting unions.

The report also examined indicators of family economics, processes, and culture in this region:

  • Absolute poverty[1] ranged from one percent of the population in Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica to 16 percent in Columbia and Nicaragua;
  • Undernourishment rates in the region are second only to Africa, while parental education is at moderate levels and parental employment levels varied widely;
  • Adults in this region report that family satisfaction and family trust are high, and that there are rarely disagreements over housework;
  • Students report the highest levels of communication on political and social issues in the world, and that their families are regularly eating meals together;
  • A high percentage of adults in this region believe that children are happier when they grow up with both a father and a mother, even though many children in Central and South America are raised outside of a two-parent home;
  • Support for working mothers and voluntary single parenthood is also high.

The meetings and discussions that took place in Peru underscored several common challenges and changes related to the family that many countries are facing, but also highlighted the value of understanding the specific economic, social and political contexts that operate in Peru, as well as every other country, to uniquely shape the experiences of children and families.

Mindy E. Scott, Senior Research Scientist

Laura Lippman, Senior Program Area Director

[1]The absolute poverty indicator captures the living conditions in one country, compared with others, by using an international poverty line and determining the percentage of the population living below that line. The international poverty line that we used in this report is set by the World Bank at 1.25 U.S. dollars a day.


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