Epidemiological, economic, and social forces have produced high levels of volatility in family and household structure for young people growing up in sub-Saharan Africa in recent decades. However, scholarship on the family to date has not examined the influence of this family instability on young people’s well-being. The current study employs unique life history calendar data from Western Kenya to investigate the relationship between instability in caregiving and early initiation of sexual activity. It draws on a body of work on parental union instability in the United States, and examines new dimensions of family change. Analyses reveal a positive association between transitions in primary caregiver and the likelihood of early sexual debut that is rapidly manifested following caregiver change and persists for a short period. The association is strongest at early ages, and there is a cumulative effect of multiple caregiver changes. The results highlight the importance of studying family stability in sub-Saharan Africa, as distinct from family structure, and for attention to dimensions such as age and recency.

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