Adolescent marriage, cohabitation and parenthood: reflections on new findings from the Young Lives/Child Frontiers young marriage and parenthood study

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.

The findings

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).

What’s next?

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 @ymaps.

The Young Marriage and Parenthood Study (YMAPS) – One Year On

Child Frontiers/Zambia
Gina Crivello

October marked one year into the Young Marriage and Parenthood Study  (YMAPS)  that brings together research from Young Lives (Ethiopia, Peru and the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana) and Child Frontiers (Zambia).

YMAPS is generating new evidence about what it is like to be an adolescent or young person who is married, in an informal union or a young parent in these settings. 

We did not begin the study with the acronym YMAPS and it took some time to finally decide on the project name. The geographical reference and ‘maps’ metaphor is intentional: firstly, the study aims to understand the life pathways of young people with respect to marriage and parenthood and secondly, we are interested in comparing young people’s experiences across different geographical contexts.

We take this opportunity to launch the first YMAPS policy brief ‘Understanding child marriage: Insights from comparative research’, highlighting findings from Young Lives and Child Frontiers’ earlier research on child marriage. The brief serves as a springboard into the next step for YMAPS research looking into the consequences of child marriage. A major activity in the project’s first phase was to review the national and international academic and policy debates and to reach out to key stakeholders to help us identify knowledge gaps and where YMAPS might add value.

Last February, country teams reported back on their findings during the first YMAPS project meeting hosted by Young Lives in Oxford, bringing together team members from Addis Ababa, Delhi, Lima, Lusaka, Ottawa, Oxford and Tirupati, and representatives from IDRC (the project funder).  

Image removed.

Team photo taken during inception meeting

Beyond prevention to understand the needs, experiences and aspirations of married girls and boys

Our reviews found that there is more evidence than ever on the drivers and predictors of child marriage, but there is much less evidence of policy, interventions and research focused on married girls and young women, couples and young parents, especially in the early years of marital life. Less still is known about cohabitation and other forms of union. The tendency to focus on individual girls and young women has meant that the experiences of boys and young men are marginal. Longitudinal data is lacking on the intergenerational impacts of adolescent marriage and parenthood. Moreover, we found that not enough consideration is given to the structural and contextual influences (urbanisation, migration, low levels of formal employment, climate change, food insecurity, etc.) affecting child marriage.

Fieldwork! Talking to married girls, boys, couples and young parents

Following the project meeting, we began to design the qualitative research tools in earnest ahead of the first fieldwork beginning earlier in the summer. New data collection is underway in Ethiopia, Peru and Zambia (photo) – working in one rural, urban, and peri-urban community in each country. In addition to looking into experiences of early marital life, we are gathering data on the joys and challenges of young motherhood and fatherhood, and whether their fertility outcomes match their earlier preferences and why. Findings from each country will be synthesised in a comparative report due out late 2019 and will include findings from a recent study undertaken by Young Lives in India (see report).

Child marriage does not look the same in different contexts

YMAPS is fortunate to tap into its comparative advantage, including four countries across three continents. There are striking differences between and within countries: for example, there appear to be more unions between adolescent girls and adolescent boys, and more examples of pregnancy before marriage and cohabitation in Zambia and Peru; a predominance of traditional arranged marriages in India, and a combination of arranged marriages, peer relationships and elopement in Ethiopia. As described in the policy brief, the transition to marital life is often difficult for adolescent girls and young women; there are few services designed to meet their sexual and reproductive, study and training, or social support needs.

The policy concerns differ too. In Peru the discourse is framed around ‘teenage pregnancy’ since young people tend to be in informal unions rather than formal marriages, whereas in the other three countries, early, forced and child marriages are the policy concern. Across these contexts, we are discovering great diversity in young people’s actual experiences. 

Looking ahead and staying in touch

Draft country reports will be available early 2019, and in the meantime, readers can look forward to learning more about what is coming out of the research through monthly blogs, including reflections from local fieldworkers. The best way to stay on top of developments within the study is to follow us on Twitter (@yMAPStudy) and to check the Young Lives website which hosts the YMAPS project. We will be posting information in due course about YMAPS global symposium on young marriage and parenthood which the Ethiopian Centre for Child Research (ECCR) will host in Addis Ababa in early 2020.

 

The Young Marriage and Parenthood Study (YMAPS) – One Year On

This October will mark one year into the comparative Young Marriage and Parenthood Study (YMAPS) that brings together research from Young Lives (Ethiopia, Peru and the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in India) and Child Frontiers (Zambia) to generate new evidence about what it is like to be an adolescent or young person who is married, in an informal union or a young parent in these settings. 

We did not begin the study with the acronym YMAPS and it took some time to finally decide on the project name. The geographical reference and ‘maps’ metaphor is intentional: firstly, the study aims to understand the life pathways of young people with respect to marriage and parenthood and secondly, we are interested in comparing young people’s experiences across different geographical contexts.

We take this opportunity to launch the first YMAPS policy brief ‘Understanding child marriage: the contribution of longitudinal and comparative research’ highlighting findings from Young Lives and Child Frontiers’ earlier research on child marriage. The brief serves as a springboard into the next step for YMAPS research looking into the consequences of child marriage. A major activity in the project’s first phase was to review the national and international academic and policy debates and to reach out to key stakeholders to help us identify knowledge gaps and where YMAPS might add value.

Last February, country teams reported back on their findings during the first YMAPS project meeting hosted by Young Lives in Oxford, bringing together team members from Addis Ababa, Delhi, Lima, Lusaka, Ottawa, Oxford and Tirupati, and representatives from IDRC (the project funder).  

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The Young Marriage and Parenthood Study (YMAPS) – One Year On

October marked one year into the comparative Young Marriage and Parenthood Study (YMAPS) that brings together research from Young Lives (Ethiopia, Peru and the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in India) and Child Frontiers (Zambia) to generate new evidence about what it is like to be an adolescent or young person who is married, in an informal union or a young parent in these settings. 

We did not begin the study with the acronym YMAPS and it took some time to finally decide on the project name. The geographical reference and ‘maps’ metaphor is intentional: firstly, the study aims to understand the life pathways of young people with respect to marriage and parenthood and secondly, we are interested in comparing young people’s experiences across different geographical contexts.

We take this opportunity to launch the first YMAPS policy brief ‘Understanding child marriage: Insights from comparative research’, highlighting findings from Young Lives and Child Frontiers’ earlier research on child marriage. The brief serves as a springboard into the next step for YMAPS research looking into the consequences of child marriage. A major activity in the project’s first phase was to review the national and international academic and policy debates and to reach out to key stakeholders to help us identify knowledge gaps and where YMAPS might add value.

Last February, country teams reported back on their findings during the first YMAPS project meeting hosted by Young Lives in Oxford, bringing together team members from Addis Ababa, Delhi, Lima, Lusaka, Ottawa, Oxford and Tirupati, and representatives from IDRC (the project funder).  

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Team photo taken during inception meeting

Beyond prevention to understand the needs, experiences and aspirations of married girls and boys

Our reviews found that there is more evidence than ever on the drivers and predictors of child marriage, but there is much less evidence of policy, interventions and research focused on married girls and young women, couples and young parents, especially in the early years of marital life. Less still is known about cohabitation and other forms of union. The tendency to focus on individual girls and young women has meant that the experiences of boys and young men are marginal. Longitudinal data is lacking on the intergenerational impacts of adolescent marriage and parenthood. Moreover, we found that not enough consideration is given to the structural and contextual influences (urbanisation, migration, low levels of formal employment, climate change, food insecurity, etc.) affecting child marriage.

Fieldwork! Talking to married girls, boys, couples and young parents

Following the project meeting, we began to design the qualitative research tools in earnest ahead of the first fieldwork beginning earlier in the summer. New data collection is underway in Ethiopia, Peru and Zambia – working in one rural, urban, and peri-urban community in each country. In addition to looking into experiences of early marital life, we are gathering data on the joys and challenges of young motherhood and fatherhood, and whether their fertility outcomes match their earlier preferences and why. Findings from each country will be synthesised in a comparative report due out late 2019 and will include findings from a recent study undertaken by Young Lives in India (see report).

Child marriage does not look the same in different contexts

YMAPS is fortunate to tap into its comparative advantage, including four countries across three continents. There are striking differences between and within countries: for example, there appear to be more unions between adolescent girls and adolescent boys, and more examples of pregnancy before marriage and cohabitation in Zambia and Peru; a predominance of traditional arranged marriages in India, and a combination of arranged marriages, peer relationships and elopement in Ethiopia. As described in the policy brief, the transition to marital life is often difficult for adolescent girls and young women; there are few services designed to meet their sexual and reproductive, study and training, or social support needs.

The policy concerns differ too. In Peru the discourse is framed around ‘teenage pregnancy’ since young people tend to be in informal unions rather than formal marriages, whereas in the other three countries, early, forced and child marriages are the policy concern. Across these contexts, we are discovering great diversity in young people’s actual experiences. 

Looking ahead and staying in touch

Draft country reports will be available early 2019, and in the meantime, readers can look forward to learning more about what is coming out of the research through monthly blogs, including reflections from local fieldworkers. The best way to stay on top of developments within the study is to follow us on Twitter (@yMAPStudy) and to check the Young Lives website which hosts the YMAPS project. We will be posting information in due course about YMAPS global symposium on young marriage and parenthood which the Ethiopian Centre for Child Research (ECCR) will host in Addis Ababa in early 2020.

 

Influencing policy on child marriage in India and Ethiopia

Early marriage and FGM
Impact case study

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

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

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

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

Bargaining power’ matters.

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

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

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.

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.   

Beyond ‘zero tolerance’ of FGM: transforming traditional practices

Kirrily Pells
Kirrily Pells

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

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

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

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

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

Tackling stigma needs new approaches

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

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

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

Watch your language

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

Looking for solutions

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

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

 

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