Supporting Married, Cohabiting and Divorced Adolescents: Insights from Comparative Research
This is the 2nd policy brief from the Young Marriage and Parenthood Study (YMAPS), a qualitative research study carried out between 2017 and 2020 by Young Lives and Child Frontiers in Ethiopia, India (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states), Peru, and Zambia. It highlights findings from the study and proposes policy recommendations to ensure that young people experiencing marriage, co-habitation and parenthood feel safe and cared for in their relationships; live a dignified life despite poverty; are able to return to, or finish their education and access training; and most importantly, to ensure that their own children go to school in order to give them a better future. Understanding, supporting and listening to this generation of adolescents who have married or cohabited and become parents in a critical step in breaking the cycle of young marraige for the next generation and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
Young Marriage, Parenthood and Divorce
This report presents emerging evidence from the Young Marriage and Parenthood Study (YMAPS), a comparative qualitative study of marriage, cohabitation, parenthood and divorce among marginalised adolescents and young people in Ethiopia, India (in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), Peru and Zambia between 2017 and 2020.
There is a growing body of knowledge about why adolescents girls in the Global South get married. However, there is much less information about how to support them once they are married or in a union, and how being married or cohabiting or being young parents alters their life trajectories.
Report authors Gina Crivello and Gillian Mann, who lead YMAPS reveal the lives of adolescent girls and boys and young people who are or were married or cohabiting or are parents through the lens of 6 themes;
- What drives young marriage and cohabitation?
- Continuity and Change in marriage and informal unions;
- What do young people know about contraception and pregnancy, and what it is like to be a young parent?
- What drives the experience of unequal power dynamics between young couples?
- What causes violence and conflict in young married and cohabiting relationships?
- What leads to relationship breakdown, separation and divorce, and what are the consequences for young people?
The findings of the study suggest that a committment to the 'leave no one behind' agenda requires expanding the efforts to address child marriage to more explicity include the experiences of young people who are married or in informal unions, as well as those who are divorced and separated. A focus on adolescent sexuality, the experiences of boys and young men, and a more accurate understanding of girl's and boy's agency and decision making in their marriage and reproductive pathways are also needed.
Young Marriage Parenthood and Divorce in Ethiopia
New research sheds light on what life is like for Ethiopians who married, cohabited and became parents as adolescents, and identifies a raft of support measures.
Young Ethiopians have a greater say over marriage decisions than their parents, yet pressure from poverty and social expectations continue to drive important life decisions. Youth relationships remain governed by entrenched gender norms which constrain young women's agency and limit the life choices of both women and men.
Ethiopia has made significant efforts to reduce child marriage by tackling the causes of chilld marriage. Despite this, the country has amongst the highest rates of child marriage in East Africa. At the same time, little is know about the daily lives of millions of adolescents who are married, co-habiting and parents or what support they need to fulfil their aspirations in life.
A new research report, 'Young Marriage, Parenthood and Divorce in Ethiopia', published today as part of Young Lives and Child Frontiers Young Marriage and Parenthood Study (YMAPS), reveals what life is like for Ethiopians who married, cohabited, were parents or divorced as adolescents, and identifies a raft of support measures to help them and their families.
The findings are set within the wider context of the Young Lives study of 3,000 young people over the past 20 years, which found that more than 1 in 3 women in the Ethiopian sample are married by the age of 22 and 1 in 10 have given birth by before they are 18.
YMAPs’ researchers interviewed 83 young Ethiopians and held 15 focus group discussions in three Young Lives’ study locations, two rural and one urban; in Addis Ababa, Oromia, and Tigray. They discovered that while young people often talk about having a greater say in who they marry or live with, the majority had not planned or wanted to marry or become parents as adolescents.
Yisak Tafare, one of the report authors, says: ‘More adolescents are choosing to marry or live together, but many young people told us that they regret their decisions over time often because they were not able to continue with their education and realise too late they had not been ready to face the challenges of married life. We found this to be especially true when they felt pressured to marry – by their parents, by social expectations, or because of an unplanned pregnancy.’
- With changes brought about by education and urbanisation, adolescents and young people have a greater say compared to their parents in decisions about who, how and when they marry regardless of parental consent.
- Cohabitation is more common in urban areas, often because of unintended pregnancy, or the desire to maintain a sexual relationship while temporarily bypassing the costs of formal marriage.
- Increased agency often comes at a cost, as young peoples' unions become fragile if they lack formality or family backing.
- Elders continue to negotiate marriages and customary payments in rural areas despite greater opportunities for youth to select their partners,
- Young people still value the social status associated with being married and becoming parents.
- But in some communities, rising costs of marriage payments prevent young people pursuing formal marriage, pushing them into socially and materially precarious partnerships and potential indebtedness.
- Unintended pregnancies are hard to avoid as unmarried adolescent girls and young women cannot easily access contraception.
- Early pregnancies are a common source of regret for both young women and young men because they are pushed into early marriage and limit thier future life choices.
The young people interviewed told researchers that marriage, motherhood and fatherhood are vital sources of joy, pleasure and happiness, but their new roles and living arrangements are difficult to manage.
- Many young couples felt they had been socially, psychologically and materially unprepared for the significant responsibilities and challenges of married life.
- Within marriage, domestic work falls largely to young wives and husbands tend to take all major decisions. Young woman's agency, even over fertility, is often constrained by patriarchal values.
- Girls' and young women's subordinate status makes them vulnerable to violence within their intimate relationships.
- Young people’s relationships are fragile in the face of limited social and material resources and lack of preparation. The main reasons for separation and divorce are: early age at marriage; the husband or partner’s inability to finance the household; spousal conflict; suspected affairs; and husbands’ drinking and spending habits.
- Single women, whether unmarried, separated or divorced, face particular vulnerabilities, social stigma and challenges in accessing mother and child services and support with childcare.
The authors promote a series of multi-sectoral and coordinatedapproaches to ensure the well-being of young men and women as they form couples, establishhouseholds and bring up children. These include
- Tailoring services and programmes to ensure adolescents who are married or parents are provided with opportunities, safety nets and training, notably in financial literacy.
- Using conventional and social media to counter the stigma towards young women who are in relationships but have not married, or who are divorced.
- Promoting greater decision-making by adolescent girls over fertility through school clubs and programmes to reach out- of-school adolescents, using conventional and social media and role models.
- Encouraging financial support from parents can help newlywed or cohabiting couples to establish themselves, aided by opportunities for work and affordable housing support for male and female youth.
- Promoting awareness of women’s rights and the prevention of gender-based violence through schools, youth groups and media in order to counter the dominant role of patriarchal gender norms and unequal power relations within marriages
- Improving young peoples’ access to contraception and advocating for safe abortion, notably by enhancing the role of school clubs and health extension services.
- Policies and social norms promoting a fairer division of household labour and childcare responsibilities between women and men, and more equal decision-making over property and family planning.
Nardos Chuta, one of the report’s authors, says: ‘Policies and programmes must pay more attention to the views and needs of the millions of young people, particularly young women, who have experienced marriage, cohabitation, separation or divorce. We hope that this report will contribute to a greater understanding of what it means to be married early, so that they can receive the support they need, so that young women in particular have more choice in their lives, and the UN Sustainable Development Goal target on child marriage can be met'
For further research on this subject go to www.younglives.org.uk
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.