Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Jane Menken

Second Advisor

Sanyu Mojola

Third Advisor

Stefanie Mollborn

Fourth Advisor

Enid Schatz

Fifth Advisor

Kathleen Kahn


This dissertation examines family formation patterns in rural, post-apartheid South Africa, focusing on changes in the timing and union context of first births, and shifts in young women's fertility preferences and future projects. I use longitudinal data from households in the Agincourt Health and Demographic Surveillance System from 1993-2010. I also use qualitative data collected from women aged 18-79 in Agincourt via in-depth interviews, focus group discussions, observations, and conversations with key informants from January-June 2010. My findings demonstrate that South Africa's unique context of low fertility and high AIDS mortality has contributed to changes in the timing and union context of first births. Overall very few women enter unions by age 35 (10%). The majority of first births remain nonmarital, yet women today more often postpone first births beyond the teenage years and have their first births while married. Women with nonmarital births face several disadvantages as they move through early adulthood including being: less likely to marry; more likely to enter unstable unions; more likely to get divorced or separated; and more likely to die than women without nonmarital births. Qualitatively, I identify an empirical puzzle: Why do young women who desire children fail to consider the risk of contracting HIV, despite extremely high HIV prevalence in Agincourt? I draw on sociological theories of hope, aspirations, and future projects, to argue that uncertainty about one's current and future HIV status alongside new access to antiretroviral treatment allows women to construct idealized futures free from HIV. Even though HIV serves as the backdrop to life for young South African women, they maintain hope in their ability to obtain the modern life trajectories and goals they have constructed drawing on discourses provided by the new democratic government. My findings also document generational shifts in fertility preferences. For older women, having a large family produced status and respect. Conversely, young women desire to limit their family size and instead gain status by educating their children and acquiring modern consumer goods. I draw on the Theory of Conjunctural Action to document factors at multiple levels of society that have facilitated these changes.