2005 marked a historic peak in out-of-wedlock births, at 30% of the total number of births. Today, this share has fallen to 23.8%. This change, however, is not due to a lower total number of out-of-wedlock births – in fact, they increased by 12,000, or 2.7% between 2011 and 2012.
Instead, the decline in their proportion is due to a growing number of births in registered unions, note Zakharov and Churilova in the article ‘What's going on with out-of-wedlock birth rates?’ "There is a possibility that between 2006 and 2012, with the introduction of new family support policies [such as 'maternal capital' introduced in 2007, higher maternity and child benefits, etc.– Editor's Note], being in a registered marriage was seen as advantageous by couples planning their next child," according to Zakharov and Churilova.
Their article, based on data from a recent study, is published in the HSE Institute of Demography's most recent annual analytical report Population of Russia 2012 describing all aspects of the country' demography, including fertility, mortality, and migration, with projections until 2030.
The proportion of out-of-wedlock conceptions has decreased alongside that of out-of-wedlock births. In 2012, 44% of all births and 60% of first children were conceived out of wedlock, while in 2002, the proportion was 54% of all births and 68% of firstborns (see the article by Churilova and Chumarina 'Out-of-wedlock births and premarital conceptions in Russia: the parents' conscious decision?' published in Statistical Studies Journal, No. 7, 2014.)
Regardless of the statistical nuances, it is clear that during the past two decades of major transformations in the country's economy, society, and gender relations, births outside of marriage have become widespread, placing Russia's out-of-wedlock birth rates within the range of 25% to 40% that can be observed in the U.S., Canada, and most European countries.
In a broader global context, the lowest out-of-wedlock birth rate for developed countries of just 2% is reported in Japan, while the maximum rates, exceeding 50% of all births, are observed in Estonia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and France. "After 15 years of both absolute and relative increases in out-of-wedlock birth rates between 1990 and 2005, Russia does not look like an exception among developed countries," Zakharov and Churilova note.
In addition to the overall picture, the researchers also studied Russia's out-of-wedlock birth rates in detail, using Rosstat's data, including its unpublished statistics, and the findings from three waves of the study 'Parents and Children, Men and Women in Family and Society'.
A major recent trend has been the annual increase – by 3.3% in 2011 and by 4.7% in 2012 – in births registered by both unmarried parents, while the proportion of births registered by mothers alone decreased in 2010 and 2011.
According to the researchers, "Today, many out-of-wedlock children are born to couples which for some reason choose not to register their union, rather than to single mothers, as was the case in the 1950s or 1970s." During the postwar period, the contribution of women who have never been married to the overall out-of-wedlock birth rates has dropped from 40% to 15-20%.
Major peaks in out-of-wedlock birth rates occur in women under 20 and those over 35.
There was a sharp increase from 20% to 48% in the proportion of out-of-wedlock births in the youngest mothers between 1990 and mid-2000s, due both to an increase in adolescent sexual activity and a decrease in 'shotgun weddings'.
Back in Soviet times, people usually rushed to legalise a marriage in case of a very young woman’s pregnancy, but now such weddings are far less common. According to the authors, it is one of the key reasons why official marriages in general and early marriages in particular have declined.
In rural areas, however, shotgun marriages are still widespread, and rural teen mothers are much more likely than their urban counterparts to be married at the time they register the child or to have the child registered by both parents – perhaps because it is much easier to establish paternity in a village where people have less privacy and traditional norms are more often enforced. Consequently, 50.3% of first births within marriage in rural areas vs. 39.5% in the cities result from premarital conception.
Yet, accidental pregnancies remain common in younger women, making many of them single mothers. According to sample surveys, only a small proportion of such women eventually marry the child's father.
According to Zakharov and Churilova, "Early out-of-wedlock births are mainly the result of couples failing to use effective birth control during their first sexual experiences in young adulthood."
Out-of-wedlock birth rates are closely associated with the women’s education, the researchers found.
Women with university education prefer to have children within marriage. Women with high and low levels or education are equally likely to have their child registered by both parents. In contrast, less educated women are more likely to register a child alone, without paternity established—in 41.2% of such cases, mothers had no education beyond secondary school, in 30.3% of the cases mothers had primary or secondary vocational education in addition to general school, and only in 25.6% of the cases did they have some university-level education or a degree.
A similar pattern is observed in the U.S. where out-of-wedlock births, particularly to single women, often indicate a disadvantaged situation.
Women between 35 and 39 account for 26.9% of out-of-wedlock births (this proportion was 25.5% in 1990 and 27.1% in 2011), while the contribution of women between 40 and 44 to out-of-wedlock birth rates is significantly higher at 31.6% (34.8% in 1990 and 31.5% in 2011), similar to that of women over 45 at 32.1% (36.5% in 1990 and 34.2% in 2011).
Some of these women have chosen to have a child 'for themselves' without a husband or a partner, and some others have a child with a cohabiting partner.
Overall, the average age of women giving out-of-wedlock births increased from 24 twenty years ago to 28 in 2010-2011.
Out-of-wedlock births are now common in all age groups, including the ages between 25 and 29, when the majority of first marriages occur.
Just before the end of the Soviet Union in 1990, the out-of-wedlock birth rate was very low in this group at 11,8% (it was lower at 11% only in the group aged 20 to 24, when most marriages occurred at that time).
Even now, 25 to 29 year olds contribute less to out-of-wedlock birth rates than other ages.
A child born out of wedlock is rarely the only child in the family. Firstborn, second, and subsequent children can be born outside marriage. Perhaps the least likely to be born out of wedlock are second children (20%), and the most likely ones are fourth and subsequent children (33%), with the firstborns somewhere in the middle at 26%.
While out-of-wedlock births of the first, second, and third children have declined over the past few years, this has not been the case with the fourth and fifth births. One possible explanation is that high birth rates in this category are maintained by certain social and ethnic groups whose members tend to have many children but refuse to register marriage, e.g. for religious reasons. Thus, in Tyva, the proportion of out-of-wedlock births stands at a record 65%, followed by 42% in Chukotka, 36% in Yakutia, and 35% each in Perm Region and Buryatia.
Out-of-wedlock birth rates are on the rise. According to Zakharov and Churilova, the total fertility rate (measured at age 50) for Russian women who have never married stood at 0.65 births per woman in 1993-1994, increased to 0.74 birth per woman a decade later, and reached 0.75 in 2010-2011.
Apparently, traditional norms persist, and 36% of Russian women consider official marriage mandatory in case of a pregnancy, and 24% consider it preferable. Nevertheless, the proportion of women in unmarried unions who do not use birth control increased from 23% in 2004 to 36% in 2010, indicating that most out-of-wedlock conceptions are the result of choice rather than accident.