Family structure effects on early sexual debut among adolescent girls in Rakai, Uganda

Nanlesta A. Pilgrim, Saifuddin Ahmed, Ronald H. Gray, Joseph Sekasanvu, Tom Lutalo, Fred Nalugoda, David Serwadda, Maria J. Wawer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


This study assessed the association between household family structure and early sexual debut among adolescent girls, ages 15-19, in rural Rakai District, Uganda. Early sexual debut is associated with detrimental physical, emotional, and social outcomes, including increased risk of HIV. However, research on the family's role on adolescents' sexual risk behaviors in sub-Saharan Africa has been minimal and rarely takes into account the varying family structures within which African adolescents develop. Using six rounds of survey data (2001-2008) from the Rakai Community Cohort Study, unmarried adolescent girls (n = 1940) aged 15-17 at their baseline survey, were followed until age 19. Parametric survival models showed that compared to adolescent girls living with both biological parents, girls who headed their own household and girls living with stepfathers, grandparents, siblings, or other relatives had significantly higher hazards of early sexual debut before age 16. Adolescent girls were significantly more likely to debut sexually if neither parent resided in the household, either due to death or other reasons. In addition, the absence of the living biological father from the home was associated with a higher risk of sexual debut, regardless of the biological mother's presence in the home. Our study's findings suggest that family structure is important to adolescent girls' sexual behavior. There is need for research to understand the underlying processes, interactions, and dynamics of both low and high-risk family structures in order to devise and strategically target interventions for specific types of family structures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)193-205
Number of pages13
JournalVulnerable Children and Youth Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2014


  • Africa
  • adolescents
  • family structure
  • sexual debut

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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