The transition from childhood to adulthood is a pivotal stage of human development with important consequences for the rest of people’s lives. Adverse conditions during adolescence and early adulthood, such as exposure to local community violence, can have long-term negative effects on health and well-being. In recent decades, Latin America has witnessed a surge in deadly violence, which is now an everyday reality for many communities. Meanwhile, early relationships and teen pregnancy are common in this region, related to social inequality and limited reproductive autonomy. We don’t know much about whether there is a link between violence and early life-course transitions.

This new article in Population and Development Review investigates the impact of community violence on women’s critical life events in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala. More specifically, the study analyzed the likelihood, timing, and sequencing of women’s first births and (married or unmarried) cohabitating relationships, using statistical models of data from nationally representative surveys and homicide records. Despite their many differences, these three countries share similar socio-institutional backgrounds and experiences of violence, making them suitable for comparison.

The study shows a link between exposure to violence and earlier transitions to first cohabitation and birth in Colombia. In the Dominican Republic, community violence seems to impact the sequencing of these events, as violence-affected women in this context are more likely to have a birth before moving in together with a partner. The study showed inconclusive evidence of community violence leading to earlier first birth in Guatemala. There are multiple potential explanations for this, such as forming early relationships for protection, limited reproductive autonomy including access to contraception, and existential uncertainty triggering wishes to accelerate the pace of life.

Considering the high prevalence of early relationships, teen births, and social inequities in many Latin American communities, this study offers important insights. Exposure to violence presents as a risk factor for adolescent pregnancy, known to have long-term negative health and socioeconomic consequences. More broadly, this study expands knowledge of how contextual factors, such as violence, shape the milestone moments in the lives of adolescent girls and young women.

By shedding light on these dynamics, better interventions and policies can be tailored to support the sexual and reproductive health needs of violence-affected populations, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals on health, gender equality, and peacebuilding.

Concrete measures are needed to reduce young women’s exposure to violence and to provide them with comprehensive health services that could support their transitions from adolescence to adulthood, such as sexuality education, contraception, pregnancy care, safe abortion, as well as prevention of gender-based violence.

About the Author

Signe Svallfors, Stanford University