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
Marital and Fertility Decision-Making Report: The Lived Experiences of Adolescents and Young Married Couples in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, India
This report presents findings from a qualitative study exploring married adolescent girls and young couples’ experiences of fertility decision-making in the context of early marital life, in two southern Indian states (Andhra Pradesh and Telanaga). The research was carried out as part of Young Lives, a longitudinal study of childhood poverty that traced the life trajectories of 3,000 children and their households located in these states, over a 15-year period. By age 18, around 30 per cent of girls in the Young Lives study had married, and 23 per cent of these married girls had also become mothers.
IMPACT CASE STUDY Influencing policy on child marriage in India and Ethiopia
- Most countries worldwide have either banned child marriage or are working towards a ban, but the practice persists. Millions of children, mainly girls, are affected, especially those from poor backgrounds. Child marriage has serious economic, educational and health consequences.
- Young Lives research reveals the extent of child marriage in the four study countries, and also the severity of its impact on the life chances of girls in particular.
- In India, Young Lives evidence has contributed directly to a change in the law which makes sex with a wife who is a child an offence of rape.
- In Ethiopia, Young Lives has highlighted the complexity of factors affecting child marriage, and shared findings with the Ethiopian Government and other influential stakeholders including UNICEF and the Population Council.
‘I Will Achieve Everything On My Own’: The Association Between Early Psychosocial Skills and Educational Progression Through Adolescence in India
Psychosocial skills are an important element of the confidence and motivation to progress in academic life. This working paper utilises a factorial logistics model to highlight the association between psychosocial skills at age 12 and educational progression through adolescence (to age 19), analysing Young Lives quantitative survey data of Older Cohort children and longitudinal qualitative data collected between 2007 and 2014 in undivided Andhra Pradesh, India.
Quantitative data analysis shows that psychosocial skills such as subjective well-being and self-efficacy at 12 years old are significantly positively associated with retention in education at 19 years old. These findings are supported by qualitative data. Findings reveal that household wealth, children’s paid work at age 12, as well as caregivers’ education and occupational aspirations for their children play a significant role in shaping the self-efficacy and subjective well-being of children. Gender, birth order and caste also play a significant role in framing the association between psychosocial skills at 12 years old and educational outcomes at 19 years old. Given these findings, it would be useful for programme interventions aiming to retain children throughout secondary schooling to focus on building parental aspirations, particularly for girls and socially and economically disadvantaged households. Other areas that require policy attention are around providing social protection to disadvantaged households and developing teachers’ skills in order to encourage and build the psychosocial competencies of children.
Youth Transitions - Skills, Work and Family Formation: Preliminary Findings from the Round 5 Survey in India
Round 5 Longitudinal Youth Transitions: Skills Work and Family Formation Fact Sheet
This fact sheet presents findings from the fifth round of the Young Lives survey of children in United Andhra Pradesh in 2016. Young Lives has followed two cohorts of children since 2002, most recently focusing on our Older Cohort (22-year-olds in 2016) to explore issues related to education, digital skills, transitions to the labour market, and on marriage and fertility. Given that a large and growing segment of India’s population is under 25 years, attainment of education and skills development are critical to ensuring that this turns into a demographic dividend not a liability. What these findings reveal is a young generation experiencing more education, but that poorer socio-economic groups are still leaving education sooner, and are more likely to be in work rather than any form of study, than more advantaged groups. Young women remain very much more likely to be married than young men, with many still marrying below the legal age. Gender and socio-economic divides are evident in access to the new technologies that are increasingly important to 21st century opportunities
- A substantial difference in the rate of enrolment in education and training at age 22 exists between young men (26%) and young women (16%).
- While 35% of young people had either completed or were pursuing higher education at age 22, 22% of the Older Cohort had discontinued education at primary or upper primary level.
- More men (76%) were engaged in economic activity by age 22 than women of the same age (47%). This was paralleled by more women (56%) than men (11%) being married, the highest rates being among Backward Class (54%) and rural young women (66%).
- Participation in agricultural and non agricultural sectors combined is significantly higher among Scheduled Castes (70%), poorer households or bottom wealth tercile households (81%) and those living in rural locations (68%).
- Around 18% of 22-year-olds are using computers, 4% tablets, and 21% internet, and 34% are using mobile phones with internet access, although there are substantial gender and socio-economic inequalities.
- The use of mobile phones with internet access is three times higher among youth from top wealth tercile households (55%), than among youth from bottom wealth tercile households (17%).