What does 'bargaining power' mean to young married rural women in Ethiopia?

I notice that in the lead-up to this year’s International Women’s Day, a popular hashtag on social media is #SheDecides. This is clearly linked to campaigning for women’s decisions around family planning but of course goes beyond that be a rallying call for funding and enabling those choices. It reminded me that though clearly decision-making at a global level has a huge impact on women’s lives and opportunities, so too does decision-making at the most local level: one’s own home. I’ve recently written about this most personal level of #SheDecides - ‘bargaining power’.   

In 2014, Ethiopia ranked 129 out 188 countries in the Gender Inequality Index. This is despite the government’s commitment to improve the social standing of girls and women, and the considerable number of programmes targeting different aspects of gender inequality, from early marriage to women’s job creation, as well as attempts to change local cultural belief systems.

One concept that has been used to understand gender inequality, primarily from the field of economics, is that of ‘bargaining power’. Bargaining power is explained as negotiations between members of a household to arrive at decisions regarding the household unit. The basic premise is that men and women have different roles and priorities when it comes to household decision-making, and that decisions are made through a bargaining process in which household members each attempt to use the resources they have to achieve their desired ends.

Bargaining power’ matters.

Bargaining power could be argued to be a domestic issue – what happens behind the family door, between a wife and husband. But policymakers care about the bargaining power of women because of its direct correlation with different life outcomes. It is not enough to provide women with access to opportunities, services, or information, if they are powerless to act due to social and economic constraints. Increased bargaining power has been correlated with better outcomes in terms of health and education, and of the clothing of children and other members of the household. It has also been shown that women who wield greater influence in household decisions can greatly improve their children’s nutritional status.

My new working paper examines the ‘bargaining power’ of young married Ethiopian women within their marriage and their household. The paper is based on interviews with a group of young women, now in their early 20s who participated in the Young Lives longitudinal qualitative research over a seven-year period (from 2007 to 2014) spanning pre- and post-marriage, and for some of them, pre- and post-childbirth. By age 19, one in six young women in the Young Lives sample were married. I examined the changes in their bargaining power by comparing their experiences before and after marriage.

Young Women’s Household Bargaining Power in Marriage and Parenthood in Ethiopia

Nardos Chuta
Marriage and parenthood
Working paper

This working paper examines the factors that affect the bargaining power of young married women in marriage and parenthood in Ethiopia, where power structures remain overwhelmingly male-dominated and patriarchal. It draws on longitudinal qualitative data and survey information collected by Young Lives with children, young people and their families between 2007 and 2015. The paper’s main focus is young women’s changing relations and analysis of their ‘bargaining power’ before and after marriage. The concept of bargaining power has been used to understand gender inequality, primarily from the field of economics, but this mainly qualitative paper takes bargaining power to mean the negotiating capacity of young married women within their marital relationships and households.

The paper argues that intra-household, social-institutional and individual factors intertwine to shape young women’s agency towards bargaining power in differing areas of their lives. Generally, factors such as urban or rural residence, education, standard of living, customs and norms combine to shape the bargaining power of young women in marriage. Decisions are usually made at a collective level, whereas agency at the individual level is often very shallow.

The paper recommends that policies and programmes targeted towards reducing gender inequality at intra-household level have to consider the wider contexts in which those households are situated, such as how cultural beliefs and norms shape marital practices, gender and generational relations, and decision-making more broadly.

Balancing School and Work with New Opportunities: Changes in Children’s Gendered Time Use in Ethiopia (2006-2013)

Jo Boyden
Children's work and time-use
Working paper

This paper explores changes in how boys and girls in Ethiopia spend their time, with a particular focus on work and schooling. We compare boys and girls aged 12 in 2006 with another group of the same age, surveyed seven years later, in 2013. Ethiopia is the poorest country in the Young Lives study and its mainly rural population has long depended on children’s work to overcome difficult economic conditions. We speak to two policy concerns, first that there is a gender bias in how children spend their time, and second, that work by children undermines their education. The Government of Ethiopia has passed legislation stopping work that harms children’s education and stating 14 as the minimum age for employment, and there are several initiatives focused on keeping girls in school.

The survey data show that overall there is a small reduction in the hours 12-year-olds spend in paid or unpaid work (outside or inside the household) over the seven-year period. However, this downward trend holds mainly in urban areas, where both boys and girls spend much less time on work than they did seven years previous. While rural children all work longer hours than urban children, rural girls did see a decline in hours worked over time. However, rural boys have increased their working hours slightly, and by 2013 were working longer hours than girls.

Overall, our analysis does not support the policy assumption that weak education outcomes are due to low demand from parents, since both parents and children state their wish for the children to reach high levels of education. However, this positive outlook is sometimes tempered by adverse experiences at school. Our findings challenge the perception that girls are consistently disadvantaged in relation to boys in school access and work burden. In-depth interviews in two rural communities reveal that a rise in work opportunities means not only that work remains an attractive and viable alternative to education, but that, contrary to expectations, the increased returns to work have lowered boys’ education aspirations and increased their school drop-out rates relative to girls’.

Girls’ diverging pathways to marriage

Five girls (pictured above), are all born in the same year, growing up in the same small village in northern Ethiopia. By the end of their second decade of life, two are married and mothers, two have failed the national Grade 10 exam so are looking for work and one has left her job working as a maid in the Middle East and returned to Ethiopia.

How do we explain the diverging trajectories of young people who, like these girls, experienced most of their childhood during the period of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and for whom poverty was a constant, though dynamic, feature of everyday life growing up? How similar or different are their experiences when compared to their parents’ and grandparents’?

Continue reading this story on The University of Oxford's Medium page where it first appeared on 9 September 2016 and watch our research film Adolescent trajectories and early marriage in Ethiopia.   

Between Hope and a Hard Place: Boys and Young Men Negotiating Gender, Poverty and Social Worth in Ethiopia

Gina Crivello
Poverty and shocks
Human capital
Education transitions
Gender, adolescence & youth
Working paper

In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on adolescence as a key transition to adulthood. Young people are navigating puberty and making life choices around schooling, work, and intimate and family relationships. However, much of the attention has been on girls. This has led to a lack of gendered analysis and has also meant that adolescent boys have been largely left out of the picture.

This paper uses Young Lives research in Ethiopia, carried out over multiple years, to look at boys and young men’s lives, their aspirations, and the obstacles they face as they grow into adults. It examines the diverse strategies they employ to overcome these challenges, and compares their experiences with those of girls and young women of the same age.

  • Education is seen by both parents and children as a route out of poverty.  95 per cent of Young Lives boys and girls were enrolled in school at the age of 12. By age 19, there was a growing ambivalence regarding education, particularly for young men who increasingly oriented their aspirations towards the world of work.
  • Rural/urban contrasts Young people growing up in rural areas are often seen as having fewer life chances than those in towns. But the least optimistic young men were located in urban areas where they felt disconnected from development opportunities.
  • Livelihoods Many of the young men had left school and were trying to find work, both as a response to poverty and a vital source of respect in the community. But because they found so few opportunities for gainful employment, some of them were left feeling stuck and hopeless.
  • Marriage Girls see marriage as one way of improving their lives. But for young men, marriage was impossible until they had adequately paid work, and was therefore a way of entering into adulthood that they could not imagine in the near future.

The paper concludes by drawing out the policy implications of our findings. It calls for stronger gendered evidence on the relationship between gender inequality and childhood poverty, and an approach to gender justice that include boys and young men, as well as girls and young women, so that none are left trapped between hope and a hard place.

What needs to be done to keep child marriages trending down

This blog originally appeared in The Conversation  on 23 June 2015

The broader African and international lobby against child marriage and other harmful traditional practices has grown tremendously in recent years. Its political clout is being felt right down to the grassroots level with positive outcomes.

These campaigns are being stepped up. Last week, the African Union launched a campaign to end child marriage in Africa. This produced a common position on ending child marriage.

Last week also saw the annual Day of the African Child (June 16). Joined-up thinking and campaigning led to this year’s theme of accelerating collective efforts to end Child Marriage in Africa.

To galvanise all this support and translate commitments to action, the Ethiopian government has planned a National Girl’s Summit on June 25. This follows a similar summit in London last year, where the country committed to ending female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage by 2025.

Early marriages declining in Ethiopia

The good news is that early marriage is on the decline in Ethiopia. There are multiple reasons for this, though policy change and implementation of programmes have no doubt played a large part.

Over the past decade, there have been a number of government advocacy campaigns and projects supported by donors and NGOs. The Revised Family Proclamation of 2000 Article 7 prohibited marriage under the age of 18. By 2008, six of the nine federal states had enacted their respective laws which had begun to take effect in the regions from 2003. Two regions have still to amend their laws. Enforcement has tended to involve fines and, occasionally, imprisonment.

But the decline is also due to the rapidly changing social and economic environment in Ethiopia. With greater access to education, radio, satellite TV and mobile phones – as well as employment and migration of youth – there are opportunities for them to learn about the world and question prevailing cultural assumptions.

There has also been an intergenerational shift in attitudes and expectations. In one of our research interviews, a mother from Leki in Oromia describes the tension this has caused between generations:

Our parents used to give us to somebody we do not know and collect their bride wealth … they cover our head with a shawl and put us on horseback to ride us to groom’s house … it was like sending us into a prison … Now, if I marry off my daughter [against] her interest, she will refuse and oblige me to pay back any bride wealth I take.

Reflecting on what influenced them in deciding about the marriage of their children and grandchildren, parents and grandparents commonly refer to their own past difficulties arising from early marriage.

Early marriage may be viewed as a rational option by parents under certain circumstances, including when girls’ education is limited. Reuters/Radu Sigheti  

Rationales for child marriage

The reality is that, culture and tradition aside, poverty is the basic underlying rationale for early marriage. In certain contexts, early marriage may be viewed as a rational option by parents and sometimes girls.

Factors include girls having few other opportunities. Their education is limited and chances of training or employment restricted.

Marriage payments can provide support for parents. Bride wealth payments, which are customary in southern Ethiopia, can be an important source of income for girls’ families. It enables them to meet various needs and marry off their sons.

Promising their children in marriage while still young was a strategy in Amhara to form family alliances and ensure that the young couple were endowed with property to start a new household.

By marrying their daughters early, parents feel they are reducing the risk of them engaging in pre-marital sex. This redues the risk of exposing them to sexually transmitted diseases – notably HIV/AIDS – and the risk of pregnancy, unsafe abortion, or disgrace and social stigmatisation if they have a child while unmarried.

Young women who have a child out of wedlock often won’t get support from the father and may be repudiated by their parents. Finding work for young women is hard enough when they are on their own. Creche and preschool facilities are often nonexistent or unaffordable, and employers will often not accept a young woman with a child.

In a context of low life expectancy, parents are keen to ensure their daughters find respectable husbands while they are alive, and by marrying early have enough children that survive. In the absence of alternative social security, parents hope to have grandchildren to look after them in old age.

Despite the winds of change, not all parents – or indeed girls or the boys who wish to marry them – are convinced that these practices are wrong.

Changing hearts and minds

In terms of implementing the law, the birth registration system being put in place is important. But in the short term, the exact age of girls is difficult to certify and some parents or girls have claimed they are older so they can marry without risking prosecution.

The law can also have unintended adverse consequences. Some girls may also defy the law, arguing that it is their right to choose to marry early – making it difficult to prosecute them.

If legal sanctions are imposed without a genuine change of heart and people being convinced of the harm, the practices can go underground.

Much of the current campaigns’ focus is rightly on girls, particularly through schools and the media. Empowerment of the girls is clearly key to bringing about change.

Targeting men and religious leaders

These practices are closely linked to the rest of girls’ lives and opportunities. Breaking the cycle of poverty by providing girls with more chances for education, training and employment may well be more important than simply seeking to convince them to avoid harmful practices.

Ethiopian church leaders have a role to play in condemning early child marriages. Reuters/Tiksa Negeri

It is also important to involve men and boys, as fathers, future husbands and leaders. Changing views about girls’ life-chances, education and employment can lead to greater transformations in ideas about desirable marriage partners and the benefits of delaying marriage to increase opportunities.

There is also evidence that convincing customary and religious leaders to denounce the practices and avoid them for their own daughters has an important role in changing trends.

The forthcoming summit is without doubt a step in the right direction. Combined efforts from all stakeholders including government structures and services, international and civil society organisations is crucial. But in the final analysis, the need for change has to be believed in and implemented within communities by the girls, young women and men, and their parents. The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. The images of children in this blog were chosen by The Conversation editors and are not of children involved in Young Lives research. Read the original article.

Click here for our slidehare presentation given at the Ethiopia Girl Summit

Youth Trajectories through Work and Marriage in Rural Ethiopia

Nardos Chuta
Adolescence and youth
Working paper

The paper explores young people's trajectories through work and marriage in two rural communities in Ethiopia. Global policy attention and research has been dominated by the patterns found in high-income country contexts. Although there is increasing focus on 'adolescence' in low-income countries, the concept of 'transition' has been critiqued as inadequate. The paper explores the trajectories of young people who are no longer in formal schooling, through their involvement in work/livelihoods and marriage. It draws on Young Lives survey and qualitative longitudinal data. The paper suggests that transitions in Ethiopia do not occur in a neat fashion and that education and early marriage are less linked to the linearity of transitions experienced by young people in Ethiopia. Thus, it is advisable to consider contexts that support the transitions of young people while designing policies and programmes.

Youth and Development: Preliminary Findings from Round 4 in Ethiopia

Gender, adolescence & youth
Adolescence and youth
Marriage and parenthood
Country report

This fact sheet presents findings from the fourth round of data collection carried out by Young Lives in Ethiopia in late 2013. It reports on outcomes for the Older Cohort at age 19 in terms of education, employment and marriage, showing clearly how young people's opportunities in life are influenced by their gender, their family's wealth level and background circumstances. Almost 60% of the young people were still in education at age 19 (27% combining this with work), 28% had left school and were working, and 7% were not studying, working or married. Young people from poorer groups and rural areas were more likely to have left full-time education, many without a secondary-level qualification. By the age of 19, 13% of the girls in our sample were married and 10% already had a child of their own. Early marriage and child-bearing is most common for girls in rural areas and from poor households. Our findings show that, despite high aspirations earlier in adolescence, by age 19 the reality for many young people is very different.

Beyond the Girl Summit: creating a legacy of health, education and empowerment

 As someone who spends most of my time involved in the nitty-gritty of research, from fieldwork through data analysis to publishing papers and producing policy briefs for consultation with government and other stakeholders, coming to London to attend the Girl Summit was an extraordinary experience. The energy and excitement was palpable and the general enthusiasm especially from vocal young women was infectious.

Brave girls at the forefront

The Girl Summit on 22 July was an inspiring event held in a south London school with girls at the forefront. Four brave young campaigning women made moving speeches: Farwa who got her aunt to persuade her parents in Bangladesh to stop her early marriage, Alimatu who spoke out about coming to terms with the FGM she underwent in Sierra Leone, Malala who took on the Taliban in Pakistan and was standing up for the girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and 16 year old Hanah, UNICEF ambassador for Ethiopia, whose plea at the end of the summit for everyone to get involved got a standing ovation.

Galvanising support

The Summit was important for obtaining commitments for action from more than 20 countries, including by ten African ministers and the Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister, and from major national and international donors. The Charter was signed by leading organisations (including Young Lives Ethiopia) and, though the event was mainly preaching to the converted, it reached out worldwide through social media.

Mindful of twin sensitive issues

Tackling culturally sensitive issues head on is complex and sensible suggestions were made, notably by women from countries where the practices are common, about the need to avoid blaming or ostracising the victims and the risk of sparking a backlash, and about avoiding fuelling Islamophobia and muddying the waters with references to terrorism, both mentioned by British women from immigrant communities.

Tougher measures giving teeth to laws

The British government unveiled plans for tougher sanctions and prosecution of people involved in the practices, making parents in the UK liable if they marry off or circumcise their daughters, and imposing legal sanctions against health professionals who fail to report FGM. However, some concerns have been expressed, for instance by the Royal College of General Practitioners, that this may discourage women who have been circumcised from seeing a doctor (The Guardian, 26 July 2014).

‘The numbers don’t lie’

At a pre-summit meeting organised by DFID about research on these issues, one participant echoed the general sentiment that the statistics were compelling and ‘the numbers don’t lie’. Yet others pointed out that we do not have reliable figures. Perhaps more worrying is that establishing the facts about such sensitive topics may be difficult if not impossible when people are worried about acknowledging involvement in illegal practices, and where ‘checking’ about FGM would raise ethical issues. The alarming projections unveiled by UNICEF at the Summit may be based on shaky foundations and also do not factor in the likelihood that the practices are likely to decline dramatically, even without all the recent media attention, government commitments and funding.

Unintended adverse consequences: field evidence

Evidence from Young Lives in Ethiopia suggests that the imposition and strict enforcement of legislation banning child marriage and FGM/C may lead to the practices going underground or being circumvented by those who are not convinced that they are harmful. Unless parents and girls believe that FGM is harmful and are protected from adverse risks, they may hold the ceremonies at night or in the bush to avoid prosecution, or may circumcise girls earlier than is customary or pretend the ceremony is for a male circumcision to avoid detection. Likewise, they may pretend girls are older to marry them before the legal age of 18, particularly since birth registration is only just starting to be implemented in Ethiopia. We came across cases of girls arguing that it was their right to decide to be married and/or circumcised, and who had organised their own ceremonies despite parents’ and teachers’ opposition. Moreover, imposing a legal age of marriage of 18 (when it is 16 in the UK) may put adolescent girls who are sexually active at risk.

Older adolescent girls at risk

The recent expansion of education, particularly for girls, has brought new risks with it. The current shortage of secondary schools means more girls have to travel further from their communities for school, and some parents fear that their daughters may be abducted and raped. With restricted access to contraceptives for teenagers, consensual sex before marriage may expose them to risks from STDs, notably HIV/AIDS. Parents fear that their daughters may become pregnant and have unsafe abortions, or that they risk being rejected by their boyfriend and bring shame on the family if they decide to have a child before marriage. Girls themselves also worry that they are at risk of abduction or rape, and that they cannot access contraception or safe abortion. They fear rejection and ostracism if they have a child outside marriage, as well as face the daunting challenge of bringing up a child singlehandedly, often having to migrate away from their communities to seek work while caring for an infant without support (usually without any childcare facilities).

Linking to poverty reduction and women’s empowerment

The focus of the Girl Summit 2014 on child marriage and FGM has galvanised political will and public attention around these issues in a way that was unimaginable a decade ago. Maria Eitel, the CEO of the Nike Foundation recalled what a ‘hard sell’ focusing on adolescent girls had been in starting up what became the Girl Hub. The energies generated by the Summit should enable better social protection systems to be established for girls at risk and already affected, and hopefully also for those likely to suffer from the unintended adverse consequences of legislation. If this first Girl Summit becomes a springboard to broaden the agenda to adolescent reproductive health and improving girls’ access to affordable, quality and relevant education and pathways to training and employment, so much the better. If this spotlight on adolescent girls is just a beginning and leads to more attention on the fundamental underlying issues of intergenerational transmission of poverty, young women’s empowerment and the broader international poverty reduction agenda, it will have a lasting legacy. Otherwise, these inspiring energies and commitments may fizzle out as other concerns take the limelight or the massive investments committed may be tackling issues that are in any case on the wane and are symptoms of much more deep-rooted gender and poverty issues.  

Girl Summit 2014 – the Ethiopian perspective

View the video produced by the Ethiopian Embassy in London with footage from the Summit and in-depth interviews with HE Demeke Mekonnen (Deputy Prime Minister of Ethiopia) and HE Zenebu Tadesse (Minister of Women, Children and Youth Affairs) (YouTube video 20 mins in Amharic)

Beyond ‘zero tolerance’ of FGM: transforming traditional practices

Kirrily Pells
Kirrily Pells

To mark International Day for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation, Young Lives Policy Officer Kirrily Pells, explores how efforts to end FGM in Ethiopia are faring.

The Ethiopian government has taken a strong stance against female genital mutilation so anyone who performs, commissions or publically encourages the practice can be punished with a hefty fine or prison sentence. They’ve also promoted a wide range of preventative initiatives, including advocacy campaigns in schools and the media to spread knowledge of the adverse health and social consequences.

Efforts to combat FGM have reduced the number of Ethiopian parents who admit to continuing the practice from 51% in 2000 to 38% in 2005 (when the government last collected national data before penalties were introduced). But the prevalence of FGM is declining quite slowly, with regional variations between 10% of girls in the capital Addis Ababa reportedly undergoing the procedure and about 60% in the Afar region in the east of the country in 2011.

We found that Ethiopian officials are generally adamant that FGM should be banned and believe in taking a strong stand. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that other members of the community believe the same thing. Our research found that the reasons why many families still cling to the practice isn’t because they’re ignorant of the consequences or that they’re indifferent to their children’s health and well-being. Knowledge of the FGM ban is widespread and people well understand the adverse health consequences that have been communicated through the media. And they’re also well aware of sanctions and express fear of being punished.

The most common reason for communities refusing to abandon FGM is that they see it as a way of protecting girls’ social and moral development, so that their reputation within the community will be protected and they won’t have difficulty to find a husband. This is particularly important for poor families with limited education and work opportunities because they believe marriage is the only way to ensure that their daughters will be provided for in adulthood.

Tackling stigma needs new approaches

Some of the girls told us that instead of the ceremonies taking place during the day, now they’re being held at night to try and avoid official attention. Girls described a lot of peer pressure to undergo the practice and said that girls who haven’t been circumcised are being bullied. And there are strong fears that uncircumcised girls won’t be able to marry well. So that’s why some girls reported that they were organising circumcision ceremonies themselves even though their parents weren’t forcing them to do so.

The fact that girls are prepared to choose to undergo a painful and potentially dangerous procedure rather than risk social stigma shows just how entrenched FGM is in local custom. But this doesn’t mean cultural attitudes can’t change. We shouldn’t see culture as a static or monolithic phenomenon because it is dynamic and it does change. Within any culture there are different practices and different voices. It’s often assumed that the anti-FGM agenda is driven by Northern-based activists, but there are very vocal African women and women’s organisations who are leading the way in campaigning against FGM.

Having a law in place provides a useful framework and sets an important standard. But rather than trying to impose ‘zero tolerance’ through harsh legal enforcement which risks driving the practice underground, it’s important to think about a broader spectrum of approaches and to engage the whole community to find the approach that’s most likely to work.

Watch your language

It’s even important to be careful about the language used: If you go into a community and you ask about mutilation, you’re immediately going to put people on the defensive because you’re telling them that what they’re doing is wrong, even though they have a strong rationale for doing it. So it’s better to take a sensitive approach and engage in constructive dialogue rather than creating tension and potentially driving FGM underground and making it more dangerous.

Looking for solutions

One of the most important things is to build more opportunities for girls, particularly in terms of education and livelihood opportunities. Because if girls have opportunities then there’s going to be less need for a practice that’s seen as securing their social and economic well-being because they will have other routes to do that. And Young Lives research shows very strongly how education is changing children’s roles and aspirations for the future.

Addressing FGM means working across a range of areas of intervention. Providing information about the adverse consequences as well as giving girls education and economic opportunities will go a long way towards helping to reduce the underlying rationale for FGM.


Listen to a podcast by Kirrily on the PodAcademy: http://podacademy.org/podcasts/fgm/