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.
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 (https://news.un.org/es/story/2018/04/1431011) 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.
 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.
Self-efficacy, Agency and Empowerment During Adolescence and Young Adulthood in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam
This working paper examines gender gaps in empowerment and the timing of their emergence through adolescence and young adulthood for two cohorts of children living in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam. It uses longitudinal data from Young Lives on two psychosocial competencies – self-efficacy and agency – associated with the notion of empowerment. In all four countries, gaps in self-efficacy emerge in late adolescence, widening particularly between the ages of 15 and 19 and favouring boys. The results are more heterogeneous for agency; gaps widen between the ages of 12 and 15 and favour boys in Ethiopia and India, and girls in Peru and Vietnam. However, for the latter, the gaps close or even reverse in favour of boys by age 22. Our analysis pays special attention to the sub-national context: whether young people grow up in urban or rural areas. We find important gaps for rural girls, who show the lowest levels of agency and self-efficacy across the four countries. Finally, we explore the relationship between background characteristics and these two measures in mid-adolescence and young adulthood (ages 15 and 22). We find that these outcome measures correlate positively with the socio-economic level of the household in which they were born and grew up.
Early reflections on findings from the Young Marriage and Parenthood Study (YMAPS)
The Young Marriage and Parenthood (YMAPS) research team, jointly run by Young Lives and Child Frontiers, met recently in Lima, Peru, to share new findings about adolescents’ experiences of marriage, co-habitation, divorce or parenthood.
This blog sets out some early reflections from the Young Lives communications team on the evidence we heard, paving the way for more detailed blogs on specific findings and research outputs to be published from across our country teams over the coming months.
Background to the study
YMAPS is investigating aspects of young marriage and parenthood that have received limited attention from international development policy and research to date. For example, whilst the reasons behind early marriage are well researched, less is known about what life is actually like for adolescents, particularly boys, once they are married, cohabiting, divorced and/or parents. Less is also known about the intergenerational aspects of adolescent marriage and parenthood.
The young people interviewed in this study live across a range of urban, peri-urban and rural locations and are drawn from the Young Lives/Niños del Milenio study samples in Ethiopia, India and Peru and a sample of adolescents from the Child Frontiers study in Zambia.
Young people are not only experiencing the formal union of early marriage, but many also cohabit informally, something that we had not anticipated. Moreover, marriage and co-habitation is established in lots of different ways across – and within – the study countries. In India, for example, adolescents’ unions still come about mostly through arranged marriages. But in the other study countries, it is a more complex picture. Unions are established through various routes which include friendship; sexual relations; pregnancy; elopements; a girl sleeping at a man’s house; marriage payments between families (bride-wealth, dowry or gifts) and more. Some relationships remain informal, others move on, sometimes with elders’ interventions, to more formal marriages.
Despite these different contexts, we were struck by the many similarities in their experiences and challenges they faced.
Lost dreams and regrets; but parenthood joy
Most of the adolescents in this study had at one time attended school and had had dreams of a better future. But the complex pressures of poverty, unequal gender roles, domestic violence, social expectations and family demands, often led to relationships and roles in which they felt unable to realise those dreams. Many adolescents expressed regret about their situation because they were struggling to become the person they thought they would be. Some said they were unhappy and declared that parenthood alone brought them joy.
Few options for girls living in rural, impoverished circumstances
For some, an early marriage or co-habitation was a romantic choice. But for many young girls early marriage is seen as the only way to get out of poverty: “He helped me; he bought me clothes, shoes, dishes, pans (…) he told me: you are not going to have any problems, I am going to support you and I will look after you” (adolescent girl, Peru).
Perpetuating young marriage and parenthood – the role of families
We didn’t hear anyone say that they wanted girls and boys to marry young. But at the same time, families sometimes took action to bring about early marriage because of financial and social pressures.
Few adolescents have access to information about birth control in school and consequently there are many pregnancies. Abortion is not a popular choice because though legal in Ethiopia, India and Zambia it is difficult to access and often considered unsafe. Therefore, to avoid the stigma of an unmarried, pregnant daughter, families often pressure young people to marry. Boys are expected to leave school and assume financial responsibilities: “I had to stop my education at grade nine and marry her. I was forced to live with her actually. I approached her just to have fun, but unfortunately it ended in marriage” (A young divorced man in Ethiopia describes his marriage when his girlfriend became pregnant).
Traditional gender roles in marriage and co-habitation
For many, life in an early marriage holds few opportunities other than to fulfil traditional gender roles, often to the disadvantage of adolescent girls who have little say over significant household decisions: “She is in charge of her pots, her things and I am in charge of my cars” (adolescent boy, Peru). In some locations they couldn’t even determine their own fertility: “If a man wants children, the women must give birth as many times as her husband wants; otherwise they are divorced” (group of adolescent girls in Ethiopia). Families can again be complicit in perpetuating inequalities: “I advise my niece, if you have a husband you have to serve him” (an adult woman in a focus group discussion in Peru).
Escape from violence – only to encounter more
Many adolescent girls had experienced domestic violence before entering into early marriage or cohabitation. They described how they hoped they would escape violent (childhood) homes by getting married. Yet many went on to suffer violence in their new homes: “I used to be beaten. He was just fine when we were dating but when we got married, we would be fine one day and be fighting the next” (a divorced girl from Zambia).
What about the boys?
Finding adolescent boys willing to participate in the study was challenging and they were often more reluctant than girls to share their experiences. From those interviewed, we heard some describe their relationship or parenthood in positive terms but many others felt trapped or overwhelmed by new responsibilities.
Overall, we felt girls and boys were often entering early relationships, marriages and parenthood completely unprepared. Consequently, they really struggle to negotiate new roles, often with significant negative consequences for both: “It is not good. Marriage needs age. When you marry while you are young you don’t know what to do” (divorced boy, Ethiopia).
An important outcome from this research will be to better understand how young people can be supported in their married (including cohabitation) and parental roles and responsibilities. The team will draw on the voices of young people themselves to develop new policy recommendations over the coming months, which will be published in specific country reports, alongside a comparative report to synthesis country findings. The communications team will work to ensure these messages are widely disseminated for greatest impact on related policies and programmes, and welcome blog readers’ thoughts and comments. To hear more about the initial findings watch this video here, for more on Young Lives gender and adolescent findings visit the website here and for updates from Young Lives please follow us on Twitter @yloxford @yMAPStudy
Patterns and Drivers of Internal Migration Among Youth in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam
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.
Experiences of Peer Bullying among Adolescents & Associated Effects on Young Adult Outcomes: Longitudinal Evidence from Ethiopia, India, Peru and Viet Nam
Globally it is estimated that more than one in three students between the ages of 13 and 15 are regularly bullied by peers. Being bullied has been found to have a significant impact on children’s physical and mental health, psychosocial well-being and educational performance, with lasting effects into adulthood on health, well-being and lifetime earnings. Most research, including cross-cultural comparative work, has focused on high-income countries, identifying a range of predictors and effects associated with being bullied. Far less is known about bullying in low- and middle-income countries.
This paper is a contribution to the UNICEF Multi-Country Study on the Drivers of Violence Affecting Children, which analyses how structural factors interact to affect everyday violence in children’s homes, schools and communities. The results of the multi-country study intend to inform national strategies for violence prevention.
We use longitudinal data from the Young Lives study of childhood poverty to address three core questions:
- Which children are bullied and how at age 15?
- What is associated with certain groups of children being bullied?
- Are there long-term associations between being bullied at age 15 with psychosocial indicators (self-efficacy, self-esteem, parent relations and peer relations) at age 19?
• Indirect bullying, such as measures to humiliate and socially exclude others, is the most prevalent type of bullying experienced at age 15 across three of the four countries, ranging from 15 per cent of children in Ethiopia to 28 per cent in India.
• Verbal bullying is also prevalent, affecting a third of children in Peru and a quarter in India.
•Physical bullying is the least prevalent form and lower than the other types, with the exception of India where the rate of children experiencing physical bullying is similar to other types of bullying.
•Boys are at greater risk than girls of being physically and verbally bullied and girls are more likely to be bullied indirectly.
•Poorer children are consistently more likely to be bullied in India and experience some types of bullying (physical, social exclusion and attacks on property) in Viet Nam than their less poor peers.
Why child marriage isn’t an easy win for campaigners
Today is International Day of the Girl Child, a day that celebrates girls and girlhood. It’s clear why international campaigners argue marriage has no place in childhood. Here in Ethiopia the government has pledged to eliminate the practice by 2025. Global concern about child marriage hinges on lost opportunities for girls, human rights issues, and from a purely health perspective, the increased risks of premature pregnancy, maternal and infant mortality and fistulas.
However, what international campaigners sometimes find hard to accept is that local concerns for girls’ wellbeing and protection from abduction, sexually-transmitted diseases, pregnancy, unsafe abortions and childbearing resulting in stigma are often the reasons given for promoting early marriage and for resistance to the ban on marriage. This is especially true for older teenagers who are already sexually active.
(read the rest of this blog on Thomson Reuters Foundation News where it first appeared on 11 October.)
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
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.
Towards a Better Future? Hopes and Fears from Young Lives
Young Lives has been following 12,000 children in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam since 2002. This is the third book about the lives of 24 of those children. We have watched them as they started primary and then secondary school, and we have seen many of them grow into young adults. They have shared their hopes and their fears with us, their ideas about themselves, their families and their communities.
Growing up has meant more independence – and more responsibility. There is pressure to conform to wider social norms and expectations. Gender has become more significant as the children move into adolescence and beyond, and decisions about school, work, marriage and fertility are made within families and communities.
We believe that the views and experiences of the children in our study are key to understanding childhood poverty and in helping to identify effective policies and practices to tackle it. As the mother of Teje, who is 13 and from Ethiopia, said: “I want development for all human beings and I want everyone to have a comfortable life. I want this research to contribute to that.”
Gendered Trajectories of Young People through School, Work and Marriage in Ethiopia
This working paper examines how gender affects girls’ and boys’ school, work and marriage trajectories across adolescence and into early adulthood in Ethiopia. It explores when gender inequality begins to open up in childhood; in which domains, how and why gender disparities persist across adolescence and into early adulthood; and, finally, whether and how gendered norms, values and practices impact on children’s trajectories.
Drawing on quantitative and qualitative longitudinal data from Young Lives, gathered from children and their parents, we found that:
- children developed high educational aspirations and tried hard to achieve them, though often with little success;
- poverty, work, illness, family-related problems, and (for girls in particular) early marriage had cumulative negative impacts, eventually forcing them to leave school;
- the transition to marriage affected young women and men differently, and getting married prior to finishing education curtailed the ambitions of some girls.
The findings challenge the normative understanding of ‘transitions’ by suggesting that they are neither clear-cut nor a one-off or one-way process. In Ethiopia, where poverty and social norms shape the majority of children’s lives, their trajectories appear to be interconnected and overlapping, rather than distinct pathways. Finally, the paper highlights some policy implications, calling for comprehensive child-focused social protection interventions to reduce the negative impacts of both poverty and gender on young people’s trajectories.