Adolescence: A Second Window to Address Child Poverty in Ethiopia

Adolescence and youth
Policy paper
Ethiopia Research Brief 4

This brief, produced in partnership with UNICEF Ethiopia, draws on evidence from Young Lives
Ethiopia. It is also based on the ‘Adolescence Snapshot’ written by Kath Ford, published following the
Young Lives conference ‘Young Lives, child poverty and lessons for the SDGs’ held in June 2018.
More information is available at This brief is one of five briefs produced under
a joint Young Lives/UNICEF study into transitions from childhood to young adulthood in Ethiopia.

How does teenage marriage and motherhood affect the lives of young women in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam?

Kristine Briones
Catherine Porter
Adolescence and youth
Marriage and parenthood
Working paper

This working paper examines the characteristics of young women who have been married, cohabited, or given birth in their teenage years in four low - or middle -income countries; Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam.  It finds that the rates of teen marriage are highest in India, but a high proportion of Peruvian girls are already cohabiting or mothers by the age of 19. The paper compares those who were married/cohabiting as teenagers with those who were not, at age 22, and finds that young women who were married/cohabiting in their teens are significantly less likely to have completed high school in all countries, and less likely to believe in equality between men and women, and score lower on measures of empowerment.  Some of these observed differences were apparent before their marriage, so it is difficult to make a causal attribution to the event of marrying, or to early life circumstances.  However, even conditional on other correlates, the probability of finishing high school is 15 - 25 per cent lower for teen-married women, and the fall in agency between ages 15 and 22 is significantly lower than for those who were not married young.  

This quantitative analysis complements qualitative findings from a companion study (Winter 2018), showing that lack of support for women who marry young exacerbates disadvantage from poverty and gender norms.  

From Childhood, through Adolescence to Adulthood in Ethiopia.

Since 2001, Young Lives has followed the lives of 3,000 children growing up in different contexts in Ethiopia, involving a younger cohort born in 2001-2 and an older cohort born in 1994-5. The younger cohort of children are now moving from adolescence into adulthood, while the older cohort have already become young adults. Young Lives has interviewed the children, their caregivers and community respondents over five rounds of surveys and four qualitative waves in 20 sites in five different regions.

So, what have we learnt about the lives of children over the years? And how can this information be useful for improving policies and programmes in Ethiopia? What are the differences for girls and boys, for children from urban and rural areas, and how have different household circumstances affected their life chances? When we return to interview them during this new fifth wave of qualitative research in mid- 2019, what will have changed? Where are they heading to now and what are their hopes and aspirations for the future?

The new fieldwork, supported by UNICEF, will be implemented in different urban and rural locations of Ethiopia and will compare the younger group who are still in late adolescence with the older group who are already adults. Findings will be able to illustrate different pathways for boys and girls from contrasting family backgrounds living in various settings. This will provide key insights into a range of important topics including transitions from school to work, migration, household formation, marriage and parenting and the different challenges children and youth face in contexts of food insecurity.

The new findings will inform Government policies on children and youth, feed into the evaluation of the current Growth and Transformation Plan and provide inputs into preparations for the next plan. The research will also inform UNICEF Ethiopia’s new Country Programme and other development partners’ plans to support the Government to prioritise children’s and youth issues in the journey to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and Ethiopia’s efforts to attain lower middle-income status.

This new study will also allow Young Lives to further analyse the key findings from across 15 years of research to draw out key lessons into a series of short policy briefs.

The first brief will provide an overview across different areas of children’s lives. UNICEF has demonstrated that child poverty is multi-dimensional and that monetary indicators fail to convey the true depth of deprivations. The Young Lives study confirms this, and our findings address issues in various domains including poverty dynamics, nutrition, health and cognitive development, education and learning, wellbeing and child protection. This brief will include the 12 key messages highlighted in the Young Lives Ethiopia Country Report.

We then focus on four specific topics of policy concern through the development of additional policy briefs. First, we look at child marriage. Though the rate of child marriage is fortunately on the decrease in Ethiopia, it remains a major issue as the absolute number of girls affected is increasing, and little is known about what happens to girls who marry early or their offspring. We will synthesise findings from Young Lives about how early marriage and parenthood affects their lives, especially their education and work opportunities, their relations with their spouse and family and their scope for decision-making, notably about having children.

Second, violence is an area where children need further protection. Children of different ages, especially girls, face a range of risks including physical, emotional and sexual violence in their homes and communities and at school. We investigate where and why this happens, how children and adults respond, the services available and how they can be improved.

Third, we analyse early childhood care and education. How were children treated in early life and what effect has this had on their later development and chances? Young Lives reviewed current pre-school provision in Ethiopia and will use this to compare it with the experiences of the children we have been following. The new fieldwork will investigate how the Young Lives children, who are now adults, parent their own children; we will therefore be able to compare early education and care over three generations: the parents of the Young Lives children, the children who have become parents themselves and their own children.

Finally, we analyse the phase of adolescence and the struggles girls and boys face at this crucial age of transition as they seek to become independent, earn a living and form their own households and families.

The results of this research will be disseminated through briefs presented and distributed at the monthly seminar series of the Child Research and Practice Forum at the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth and at events on key international days relating to children and youth.

For wider coverage the briefs will be posted on the Young Lives and UNICEF websites, translated into Amharic to better reach a national audience and will be promoted through social media. The preliminary results of the new field research and the final versions of the briefs will be presented at a validation workshop at the end of 2019 and will provide important data for further analysis leading to insights useful for policy engagement in 2020, when Young Lives hopes to carry out a sixth survey.

This study is being undertaken by Oxford University and the Young Lives Project under the Policy Study Institute of Ethiopia. Members of the Reference Group include MoWCY, MoLSA, MOE, Save the Children, Child Justice Project, Consortium of Christian Relief & Development Associations and Addis Ababa University.

UNICEF will support financially the development of five different policy briefs using existing Young Lives’ data and the undertaking of the new qualitative wave of the Young Lives study.


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


Patterns and Drivers of Internal Migration Among Youth in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam

Maria Franco Gavonel
Mobility and migration
Gender, adolescence & youth
Adolescence and youth
Working paper

There is general consensus in literature on migration that migrants are primarily young people. During the transition to adulthood, young people make important choices regarding education, labour force participation, and family formation. Using a unique panel dataset on youth born in 1994-95 in Ethiopia, India, Peru, and Vietnam, this working paper investigates how life-course transitions to adulthood relate to patterns and predictors of internal migration in low- and middle-income countries. It documents patterns on prevalence, frequency, timing, reasons and streams of migration, employment at destination, subjective well-being, and migration aspirations. The paper then describes the factors associated with young men and women’s decision to migrate, and the reasons for migrating.

The results suggest that there is a significant share of migrants between 15 and 19 years old across all four countries, and they are very likely to move more than once. In all countries, migrants are more likely to move after the school-age years, between ages 17 and 18. These patterns on frequency and timing of moves provide new evidence that young individuals migrate very often even before having finished school, which is key to understanding educational performance. The patterns on the reasons for moving provide evidence that young people move for a variety of reasons that go beyond the economic-related: family formation and family reunion are also important motives for migrating, especially in the studied age range. The migration streams presented show that these youth do not necessarily follow rural-urban migration as it is generalised in the literature, and they shed light on the dynamics of the less studied rural-rural migration. The results suggest that at this age, migration is a household strategy: although migrants do not necessarily contribute remittances to their previous household, they are often receiving them from their caregiver.

Choices made during the transition to adulthood shape young people’s migration patterns, and migrants are therefore a very heterogeneous group as there are systematic differences in their characteristics depending on their reasons for moving. This is important because understanding this puts us in a better position to propose more effective policies that target young migrants’ well-being in developing countries.

The Interplay Between Community, Household and Child Level Influences on Trajectories to Early Marriage in Ethiopia

Adolescence and youth
Early marriage and FGM
Marriage and parenthood
Working paper

Child marriage is a global concern and a priority issue for the African Union; the Ethiopian government has devised a strategy to eliminate the practice by 2025. In this paper we analyse Young Lives survey and qualitative data from girls aged 19 to understand pathways to early marriage, which we argue can best be explained by a combination of interacting factors at community, household and individual levels.

Our findings confirm that child marriage is primarily a female, rural phenomenon, with regional and local differences related to cultural norms. Early teen marriage is more common in regions in the north and is often related to family poverty. Customs of dowry in the north and bridewealth in the south present constraints, especially for teenagers from poorer families.  

Household characteristics are also important; parental education, especially that of the father, reduces the likelihood of child marriage. Parental death and absence was highlighted in the qualitative case material. Household wealth was particularly significant, with less than 10 per cent of early marriages among the top tercile, and family circumstances such as ill-health and drought were compounding factors.  Parental imposition of marriage was stronger and girls’ agency more limited among the younger teenage girls, whereas older teenagers were more likely to make their own marital choices.

The gender imbalance is stark, with 13 per cent of teenage girls married compared to less than 1 per cent of boys. Girls continuing with schooling were less likely to get married, but most left school first due to family poverty and problems. Paid work at 15 was found to be statistically significant as a predictor of early marriage, while case material suggests that some girls chose marriage over jobs involving hard labour. Once married, return to schooling was constrained by social norms and childcare.  

The findings suggest a need to recognise that there are early marriage ‘hotspots’, and conversely areas where the practice is declining faster which can provide important lessons for interventions. Policies should further promote girls’ education, including for already married girls, and focus more on protection for younger teenager girls who are at more risk from imposed marriages.

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.


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.

Social change without a backlash - tackling early marriage and genital cutting in Ethiopia

Kirrily Pells

Yesterday was the Day of the African Child, held every year to commemorate the 1976 massacre of black children and youth in Soweto, South Africa, who were protesting about the inferior quality of their education and demanded to be taught in their own language. The theme for this year’s observance was “Eliminating Harmful Social and Cultural Practices affecting Children: Our Collective Responsibility”. While there is international consensus that female early marriage and genital cutting can cause physical, emotional and social damage to girls, the key question for policy is how to eliminate such practices without creating a backlash that endangers girls. Failure to understand the root causes of these practices undermine their effectiveness and may bring about resistance and unintended adverse consequences.

The Ethiopian government opposes female early marriage and genital cutting, designating them as Harmful Traditional Practices and proscribing them in law. The government has introduced legislation in the constitution and legal codes and promoted a wide range of preventative measures, largely comprising advocacy campaigns in the media and among local associations around the adverse health and social consequences in schools. In some areas, this has resulted in changes in values and practices, also supported by greater participation in school and greater economic opportunities for young people. However there is considerable resistance to reform even in areas that have experienced intensive advocacy endeavours. Peer pressure leads some girls to opt for genital cutting against the wishes of their parents. This resistance has caused disagreement within families, contestation of state policy and clandestine actions, such as elopements under the guise of abduction and clandestine cutting rituals, themselves a potential risk to the girls involved. This indicates that the practices are driven underground rather than disappear.

Persistence of the practices can be attributed to the strong vested interest in the productive and reproductive capacity of women, as expressed through the regulation of their sexual conduct and marriage by older generations. Early marriage and genital cutting are also often seen as protecting girls against the social stigma of pre-marital sex and not having been circumcised. The practices are seen to ensure girls’ social integration and their moral and social development, particularly in times of social change.

Positive ways forward

Young Lives research suggests a couple of positive ways forward – starting with listening to the perspectives of girls and their families on early marriage and genital cutting to develop a better understanding of the reasons for the continuation of the practices. A more effective and culturally appropriate policy approach requires a move away from focusing on specific practices and towards linking more with wider social processes, integrating strategies aimed at reducing their prevalence with other initiatives aimed at improving the health and socio-economic status of women and families more broadly.

Other measures include encouraging culturally appropriate and sensitive ways of celebrating rites of passage (at birth or adolescence) which promote cultural values without causing physical damage. This involves working at the community level, including with local and religious leaders, especially to clarify misconceptions about religious prerequisites for genital cutting. Changing cultural values is much easier through open dialogue about fears and anxieties concerning social processes of change, rather than through legislation. Other drivers for change include the promotion of education and employment opportunities for women and girls. There is a lower prevalence of female early marriage and genital cutting among girls with literate mothers and better economic prospects provide girls and their families with more options.