Challenging approaches to child marriage and teenage parenthood

Over recent months I've listened to a striking number of conference presentations challenging the normative approach to child marriage and teenage parenthood. Most have encouraged us (as researchers) to look beyond framings of these practices as uniformly detrimental and to recognise their diversity across different contexts.

At Young Lives’ Adolescence, Youth and Gender conference, Gillian Mann presented findings from her recent work in Zambia which questioned many commonly held stereotypes; practices in their study sites were not monolithic (they found six different ‘types’ of child marriage), child marriages commonly took place amongst peers (rather than between girls and adult men), and children were often making their own decisions to marry without seeking parental consent. She also highlighted the importance of examining why we are concerned about child marriage - whether it is the marriage itself that is the problem, the factors which lead children into marriage, or the consequences arising from it? And are these problems only experienced by those young people who get married below 18?

At the Development Studies Association conference, Virginia Morrow asked us to reflect more critically on assumptions about children and youth that originate in the global North (including with regards to child marriage and teenage motherhood), which are then ‘uncritically exported to the global South’. Francesca Salvi discussed the ‘global tendency to see education and pregnancy as oppositional’, a framing that in Mozambique was leading pregnant schoolgirls to leave school early, and Brenda Rodriguez called for more recognition that much of the ‘shame, discrimination and stigmatisation’ that young mothers in Mexico face is due to the construction of teenage motherhood as inherently negative, and that more effort must be made to ‘give voice and listen to teenage mothers [themselves] instead’. 

Young Lives has recently made its own contributions to the growing research literature about child marriage and early childbearing in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, India, including Singh and Vennam 2016; Singh and Espinoza 2016; Winter and Nambiath 2016; and my new policy paper ‘Child Marriage and Early Child-bearing in India: Risk Factors and Policy Implications’. Rates of child marriage have been declining across India over the past two decades, but with increasing population size, absolute numbers are expected to rise in the coming years. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Young Lives found that it is common for girls to be excluded from decisions about when and who they marry, and many experience grave consequences from marrying and giving birth at a young age. There is thus (justifiably) substantial policy and research attention directed at preventing child marriages in the region, and much has already been written about the drivers of child marriage in this context.