Four Strategies to Delay Child Marriage
Yesterday I went to a fascinating discussion at the Population Council on child marriage in sub-saharan Africa. Specifically, we heard about the effectiveness of four strategies to delay the age at marriage among girls aged 12–17 in parts of Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Burkina Faso in regions with a high prevalence of child marriage (around 12-18%). The strategies were:
- holding community conversations about the benefits of delayed marriage,
- helping pay for school supplies to keep girls in school,
- giving families with girls aged 12-17 a goat or two chickens in exchange for an agreement that they keep her unmarried for two years, and
- doing all of the above.
They also had control areas where they did nothing except poll the girls at the beginning and end to see what percentage of them overall were married, had sexual experience, and had been pregnant. There were typically about 2500 girls in each of the three areas.
They also split the girls further, into two age ranges: 12-14, and 15-17. There are, sadly, many girls in that younger group getting married, sometimes without even knowing in advance that they were to marry, and not knowing or even meeting their husband in advance of their marriage day.
The researchers kept track of effectiveness as well as cost for each of the strategies, both per vulnerable girl and per “avoided child marriage”. A few comments:
- A local economic condition in one region – I think it was Tanzania – namely a situation where all the local coffee farmers were swindled out of their pay, resulted in worsening poverty and dramatically increased child marriage in that region.
- While giving a family a goat or two chickens might sound like a bizarre incentive to avoid marrying their daughter, it is common in Burkina Faso (but not in Ethiopia) to offer dowries in the form of livestock.
- In fact, the reasoning is often desperate and economic: I need these cows, I will give up my daughter for them.
- In Ethiopia, if I remember correctly, it’s a social bonding issue, where you are bound to marry your daughter to a neighbor’s son out of a sense of neighborliness. It’s also hard to refuse these requests.
- There’s also fear that parents have that their daughter might become pregnant before they are married, so they marry her off before that can happen.
- They also worry about their girls becoming “old maids” if they’re not married by 18.
- Different strategies to delay marriage seemed to work for the younger girls than for the older girls.
- Often the young girls who are going to be married young are also not going to school, so it makes little sense to focus efforts only on girls in school.
- As the closing speaker pointed out, these girls’ sexuality has been utterly commoditized for the marriage market, and their autonomy is basically nonexistent. In that sense, even delaying marriage from 12 until they are 16 makes a real difference in their negotiating power.
- Not to mention that, the younger they are married and start having babies, the more likely they are to live in poverty for another generation.
It’s refreshing to see scientific experimental design and data collection being used for such a good cause! I was really impressed by their approach and intelligence over at the Population Council, and I just subscribed to be notified of their future events and research announcements here.