Adolescent voices must shape policies designed to reduce early cohabitation in Peru.

As a researcher of Peruvian childhoods, I was invited to share insights from the Young Lives study in Peru at a recent conference on the international politics of child protection (held in Brazil). My particular contribution was to consider child rights and protection through the lens of adolescent girls’ experiences of cohabitation, informal unions and motherhood, based on a recent study in three Young Lives communities.[1]

A key theme throughout the conference was that children’s and adolescents’ voices remain marginalised in policy discussions.  My research shows that any policies that aim to reduce the levels of early cohabitation in Peru must be shaped by adolescents’ voiced experiences. A critical step to achieve this is to find more ways to empower adolescents – particularly girls – to have a stronger voice in their life choices.

There are many reasons why girls cohabit from young ages.

Latin America and the Caribbean is the only region worldwide where child marriage and early cohabitation is not decreasing ( and 23% of women aged 20 to 24 years old were married by age 18

Our interviews with adolescent girls in Peru suggest that to reduce the prevalence of early unions requires, first, understanding why girls choose these relationships, and second, providing girls with attractive better alternatives.

Our research points towards a complex web of reasons why girls may choose cohabitation and marriage from young ages.  These include: lack of social power within their family and intimate relationships; the desire to escape interpersonal and family violence; poor quality education; and poverty. 

Many girls search for protection and material security, but are often unprepared and vulnerable

Those girls who had married at younger ages tended to come from poorer households and from rural areas and to have already dropped out of school.  Many said they were attracted to cohabitation by the promise of protection, emotional security, care and financial support. 

“He helped me; he bought me things, shoes, dishes, and pots… He told me; I’m going to support you” (Young woman from Pangoa, Peru). 

The adolescent girls we spoke with told us that they had left their childhood home because they felt they had no say over decisions in their lives and they wanted to be free.  However, once cohabiting, they went on to experience oppressive relations with their partners, as in the example of Yolanda who started cohabiting with her boyfriend at age 16:

My father said that studying was not worthwhile for me, he said that I would not finish my studies because I would end up with a husband first.  He always told me that, so I quit my studies.  I met my partner, and we started living together. I was excited about it, I thought ‘I will finally make my own life’. But, my partner is a bit jealous.  Sometimes when I say “I want to go out”, he says, “No!”  I wanted to finish my studies, but that won’t happen now”.

The freedom that girls were looking for remained elusive, their lives in reality limited or controlled by their partners with whom they struggled to develop a healthy, balanced relationship.  Our study found that girls who started cohabiting at a very young age (14 years old) were particularly vulnerable to physical and psychological abuse, and to forced sexual relations. 

Schools are a crucial platform for intervening early on

At the conference in Brazil, discussions stressed the importance of investing in adolescent girls so that they are able to advocate for their rights across the life course. One essential space to build this capacity is in school.  The positive picture is that in Peru, the gender gap in access to education is small and more girls than ever are finishing their basic education.

However, our research suggests that this is not yet giving adolescent girls a strong enough voice over their life choices or domestic situations.  Early aspirations, acquired in part from being in school, are faltering as girls struggle to overcome unequal power relations within their households. 

What needs to be done?

Access to education is crucial for girls, but we need to go further.  In Peru, it is good that nowadays more girls are finishing basic education as is their right.  However, we need to ask: are they receiving what they need to imagine and realise a different life?

From the start of school, girls needs to be encouraged to question gender roles and stereotypes and to learn about sexual reproductive health within the framework of a rights –based approach. If girls who attend school receive an education that helps them to understand gender inequalities and that empowers them, they can probably recognise that being involved in a partner relationship is not the only way to change their lives.  Boys, young men and families, need to be included in this learning since girls along cannot shift the entrenched power relations that limit their life choices and their ability to exercise their rights.  Only then will levels of early cohabitation start to fall. 

As we approach the 30th Anniversary of the UN adoption of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, it is imperative that we step up action to ensure that children and adolescents are empowered to be resilient and to defend themselves against situations of any type of violence, but also to be in a better position to negotiate their life choices.

This is a snapshot of the findings from our research in Peru.  Our full country report on early cohabitation and parenthood in Peru will be published soon.  For updates, please follow up on @yloxford, @yMAPStudy, @NinosdelMilenio and on Facebook.


[1] The research was carried out as part of the multi-country Young Marriage and Parenthood Study (YMAPS), a collaboration between Young Lives and Child Frontiers involving case studies from Ethiopia, India, Peru and Zambia, funded from 2017-2020 by IDRC.

Tracing the consequences of child poverty - reflections from co-author Andrew Dawes on findings from 15 years of research

After several years in the making, ‘Tracing’, as we authors have come to call the volume, is published. What a journey it has been! Tracing draws on over 800 research papers, fact sheets, country reports and other outputs generated since the inception of the Young Lives study in 2001.

When asked by Jo Boyden to assist in this venture, I asked myself how on earth do we extract and synthesise Young Lives findings gathered over 16 years, to produce a concise account of the impact of poverty on children’s lives in four countries, that is at once scientifically rigorous, of interest to researchers in diverse fields, and perhaps most importantly, provides evidence that assists policy makers in their efforts to improve children’s lives?

Much of the answer lies in the deep knowledge of the project held by authors Jo Boyden and Paul Dornan who together with the Young Lives team, knew where to drill down to construct a powerful story of what matters in children’s lives both in relation to compounding disadvantage or supporting positive growth and development. 

Both the Young Lives International Advisory Board and the ‘Tracing’ Advisory Group, or TAG as we called it, challenged us to go beyond the ‘business as usual’ child poverty story and mine for nuggets that would shift the policy and intervention discourse. 

Taking this advice, we were able to demonstrate that while particular aspects of disadvantage are essential to address (e.g. under-nutrition; poor quality schooling), it is intersecting inequalities and disadvantages that are particularly powerful in undermining human development from before infancy through adolescence and youth. These include the poorest and rural children who are also members of marginalised groups (e.g. ethnic, caste or language), with less educated parents. Policies therefore need to pay particular attention to children who face these intersecting challenges.

A further example of the impact of intersecting disadvantage is evident from Latent Growth Modelling (LGM) an approach I discuss in an article here with Colin Tredoux. In Tracing, LGM traces the consequences of disadvantage in early and middle childhood and adolescence for the development of maths and language skills (vocabulary and reading comprehension). Modelling shows how children from poorer backgrounds with less educated caregivers either don't attend a preschool or attend one that is likely poor quality. That missed opportunity is associated with weaker quantitative and language skills by age five enduring through childhood.

A much-overlooked consequence of poverty is its potential impact on the psychological well-being of primary caregivers. LGM shows how the mental state of caregivers affected by poverty is related to child growth in the early years; those more negatively affected are likely to have children with stunted growth. That in turn compromises cognitive skills in both early and middle childhood. New challenges emerge in early adolescence for children who have to work to assist poor families - they have less time for schooling and studying. So a poor start compounded by other demands in later years contributes to poor skills development by adolescence. This in turn is likely to compromise education outcomes and ultimately the chance to enter further education, training and decent work. 

Patterns such as this are evident throughout the Young Lives data and are what we refer to as Developmental Cascades, a term drawn from the work of Ann Masten and Dante Cicchetti  As LGM shows, cascades occur both within and across stages of childhood development and build upon one another so that their effects accumulate to shape developmental outcomes over time.

For example, the study measured children’s height for their age at each Round. This enabled us to discover a very important nugget; evidence of both growth recovery and faltering during middle childhood. A proportion of children whose growth was stunted in early childhood showed normal growth in middle childhood, while some who had shown normal early growth, were stunted later. Thus early growth status is not necessarily fixed, indicating the potential for remedial intervention later in development. Particularly important is evidence that recovery is associated with cognitive gains in some children. 

Another example comes from the qualitative data analysed by Gina Crivello and Ginny Morrow. The TAG encouraged us to seek examples of children who were ‘bucking the trend’ of expected negative outcomes despite their disadvantages. What was it about these children and their circumstances that made the difference, and how could this information be used to provide more enabling environments for children placed at risk by poverty? Gina and Ginny’s work, discussed here, found that it was a combination of mutually reinforcing factors such as child characteristics and enabling environments in the family and beyond which together diverted children at risk into positive pathways. They also found that to maintain this positive Development Cascade, the children needed sustained support through young adulthood. 

In sum, Tracing has synthesized evidence from across the study and combined it with life course longitudinal analyses that permit examination of the cumulative influence of sources of risk, protection and opportunity from across childhood and through adolescence. This approach has allowed us to consider the implications of these findings for child-focused policy and programmes as low- and middle-income countries strive to overcome intergenerational poverty and inequality and meet the challenges of the Sustainable Development Goals. We will share Tracing’s findings with policy makers and practitioners in government and non-government settings to help inform debates on how best to secure children’s well-being, development and rights. 

Tracing the consequences of child poverty is available digitally and in print  For news of Young Lives you can follow us on Twitter @yloxford, Facebook, and check our website


Youth Transitions - Skills, Work and Family Formation: Preliminary Findings from the Round 5 Survey in Ethiopia

Country report
Round 5 Fact Sheets

Round 5 Longitudinal Youth Transitions: Skills Work and Family Formation Fact Sheet

This fact sheet presents findings from the fifth round of data collection carried out by Young Lives in Ethiopia in 2016. Young Lives has followed two cohorts of children born seven years apart since 2002. This fact sheet focuses on our Older Cohort  (22-year-olds in 2016) to explore issues related to education, labour market skills, employment and marriage, and how young people’s opportunities in life are influenced by their gender, their family’s wealth level, and background circumstances. This fact sheet looks at the proportion of the Older Cohort who were still in school, were working full-time, or were neither studying nor working, and the imbalance in relation to poorer groups and those from rural areas. It also looks at the proportion of the young people in our sample who were married or already had a child of their own. Finally, it identifies differences between urban and rural areas in the use of digital devices.

Key Findings:

  • At 22 years of age, one-third of the Older Cohort children were still enrolled in formal education. Slightly more of them were men than women, reversing the situation at age 19 when more women were in education than men.
  • Of those who were still in education, 41% were at university, 22% in vocational college, and the rest still at school. While more than half (53.4%) of the young people in the urban sites currently in education were at university, almost half (47.5%) of those in rural sites were still at school in grade 10 or below.
  • For those who were no longer in schooling, more than half (52.5%) had left full-time education without a secondary level qualification.
  • Almost one-third of the Older Cohort women were already married or cohabiting and just over a quarter had a child. Relatively few of the young men were married or cohabiting and even fewer had a child.
  • About four fifths of the young people were in work. This figure was quite high across all groups, irrespective of gender. The poorest young people were the most likely to be in work. While 58% of the employed young people from  rural sites were working in agriculture, 91% of those employed from the urban sites were working in other sectors.
  • Usage of digital devices among 22-year-olds is low, and there is a huge difference between urban and rural areas in their use.

Educational Trajectories from Childhood to Early Adulthood: Aspirations, Gender and Poverty in Ethiopia

Yisak Tafere
Education transitions
Working paper

This working paper discusses educational trajectories and gendered outcomes in early adulthood in Ethiopia. It is based on the Young Lives longitudinal study of a cohort of children born in 1994, the year when the first educational policy that set out the subsequent expansion of formal schooling in Ethiopia was launched.

Young Lives research has shown that children have gone through irregular education trajectories. Poverty, location, gender, and family situation all played pivotal roles in shaping their educational pathways.

While the national educational data indicate that the number of girls in primary school is almost equal to that of boys, Young Lives research suggests that girls fared well in both primary and secondary education. One implication is that gender parity is achieved at lower educational levels where girls are numerically better-off. Such gender parity in school may, nevertheless, disguise gender inequality that is more visible in adulthood. The national figure is biased towards boys in post-secondary education, and Young Lives research also indicates that the gender gap is narrowing and boys are catching up fast.

Young Lives research has also shown that children’s increased participation in formal education was inspired by the combination of expectations from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Ethiopian Government’s determination to expand education, and the high educational aspirations held by both children and parents. On the other hand, poverty, low quality of education, gender stereotypes, and the limited scope of the MDGs remain major challenges to educational achievements in Ethiopia. International promises have been renewed in the hope that these challenges can be addressed by moving from the MDGs to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

During this research, different policy interventions on poverty, education, and gender were in place, but there was little coordination in their application in the communities. The paper concludes that coordinated interventions on poverty reduction, quality education, and gender equality are required for children to achieve their aspirations from formal schooling.

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.

Social Justice and Youth Transitions: Understanding Young People’s Lives in Rural Andhra Pradesh and Ethiopia

Virginia Morrow
Adolescence and youth
Book / chapter

This chapter draws on research with young people in Andhra Pradesh, India, and Ethiopia, to explore the role of place in the reproduction of social inequalities.  The chapter has two aims: first, to shift the focus away from urban-centric assumptions that tend to dominate the study of youth transitions, and second, to contest traditional conceptualizations of youth transition found in much global policy discourse. The chapter emphasizes the ways in which boundaries between childhood, youth and adulthood are blurred, by exploring young people’s past and present experiences of agricultural work, and their anticipated futures. Using a longitudinal approach drawing on two case studies, the chapter explores questions raised by the structural poverty that young people in rural areas have experienced. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the interdependence of family members in relation to roles and responsibilities within the household and in subsistence farming. The chapter concludes that the raising of young people’s aspirations may not only lead to expectations that qualifications acquired through formal schooling will lift them out of poverty, but may also encourage a devaluing of farming as a viable livelihood.  Yet, there are no mechanisms for young people to get jobs in fragile economic situations. This raises questions about equity and social justice.



Virginia Morrow (2015) ''Social Justice and Youth Transitions: Understanding Young People’s Lives in Rural Andhra Pradesh, India and Ethiopia'', chapter in: Handbook of Children and Youth Studies, edited by Johanna Wyn and Helen Cahill, London: Springer.


Intergenerational Relationships and the Life Course

Yisak Tafere
Working paper

Drawing on three rounds of survey and qualitative data collected by the Young Lives study in Ethiopia among children born in 1994-95 and their caregivers, this paper investigates intergenerational relationships by means of the life-course perspective. The life-course perspective establishes the importance of understanding intergenerational relationships within changing contexts of time and place.

The study shows that parent–child relations are taken for granted when children are young; but as they grow older, parental expectations and filial obligations become explicit. In the context of rapid social change, which sometimes carries risks for children, parents assume that they have an obligation to guide their children.

With the expansion of modern education and children’s exposure to different experiences outside the family, many of them contest parental values, norms and expectations. Schooling and other competing agents of ‘socialisation’ have contributed to increased intergenerational conflicts and negotiations. One important outcome of such changes is the transformation of relationships based on traditional processes of socialisation where norms and practices have been simply transmitted across generations, into ‘negotiated’ relationships where children’s agency become increasingly visible.

On the other hand, in the context of poverty and social change, children’s key transitions have become more unpredictable. For example, at one and the same age, children could be in school, or in paid work, or married, or having their own child. Such multiple pathways make it difficult for parents to transfer traditional age-based societal norms. The unpredictability and multiplicity of transitions are also major challenges for the life-course perspective as applied to intergenerational relationships. A life-course perspective needs to adapt to such changing circumstances, using the type of longitudinal evidence on which this paper is based.

Young People's Pathways through Schooling in Urban Ethiopia

Journal Article

This article presents a case study of a rapidly evolving urban community in Southern Ethiopia drawing on survey and qualitative data from Young Lives, a long-term international study of two cohorts of children growing up in poverty (born 1994-1995 and 2000-2001). It uses this to set visible changes in aspirations and experiences of schooling over time in their political and economic context. The article illustrates the value of mixed-methods approaches within international development research by juxtaposing individual and household level data, both survey and qualitative, with data collected through school- and community-based research. This enables analysis of processes of power and social change taking place in contemporary Ethiopia and reflected in changing attitudes towards education and employment. Finally, the chapter highlights the challenges for the Ethiopian education system in meeting children's aspirations, in the context of rapidly declining economic opportunities after leaving school.

Keywords: education; employment; children and young people; Ethiopia; aspirations; mixed methods

The final published version of the article is available on the journal website.

Community Understandings of Childhood Transitions in Ethiopia

Yisak Tafere
Journal Article

The paper explores the perspectives of caregivers and other adults on the nature and timing of childhood transitions, elicited through group discussions in five Ethiopian communities, as reflective of the community norms that shape childhood transitions. The paper uses data from Young Lives, a longitudinal study of children growing up in poverty, to investigate the transitions made by girls from childhood to the onset of puberty. It argues that these transitions are rarely linear, singular, or focused on "learning", but instead multiple and often contradictory. While girls are said to be constrained by lack of opportunities, the main constraint to successful transitions in the communities discussed in the paper is having too many potentially contradictory opportunities, too soon.

 Keywords: Gender; Ethiopia; Transitions; Education; Work; Community norms

The final published version of the article is available on the journal website.

Community Understandings of Children’s Transitions in Ethiopia

Yisak Tafere
Poverty and inequality
Working paper

The paper explores the views of caregivers and other adults on the nature and timing of transitions made by children aged 11 to 13 in five Ethiopian communities, spanning rural, peri-urban and urban locations. The three transitions selected are schooling, work and 'early' marriage for girls, which provides a gendered example of rites of passage that are engaged in alongside institutional transitions and affect their success or failure. Adult perspectives are the focus as these are assumed to be more strongly reflective of the community norms that shape children's transitions. The paper provides a summary of the legislative and programmatic background to key transitions (for example, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the structure of the Ethiopian schooling system and secondary data on school attendance, grade retention, etc.) before exploring each in turn.

It concludes that the rejection of government policies on marriage and education represents a critique of these rather than an attachment to 'traditional practices' which have become increasingly fragile as people respond to material poverty and environmental challenges. Policymakers need to understand and in some cases challenge 'invisible norms', but also recognise the visible economic constraints and limited opportunity structures that increase the appeal of child work or early marriage. In these communities, children's transitions are rarely linear, singular, or focused solely on 'learning', but are instead multiple and often contradictory. While children from poor communities and households are said to be constrained by their lack of opportunities, in fact their likelihood of making successful transitions is reduced by having too many potentially contradictory opportunities, too soon.