Building an Evidence Base to Delay Marriage in Sub-Saharan Africa

Working with partners in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, the Council is developing and evaluating cost-effective, sustainable approaches to delaying marriage in child marriage “hotspots” in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Issue

Despite laws against it and growing public opposition, child marriage remains prevalent, especially in hot spots in sub-Saharan Africa. Early Population Council research in Ethiopia, for example, found:

  • Early marriage is extremely common, virtually always arranged, and girls have little foreknowledge of their marriage or their husband. 95% of the girls surveyed did not know their husband before marriage, and 85% were not told that they were going to be married.
  • Marriage effectively forces girls into having unwanted sexual relations with a stranger.
  • More than two-thirds of married girls report that they had not yet started menstruating when they had sex for the first time.
  • Many of these marital unions are unstable, and 12% of girls in Amhara aged 10–19 are divorced.
  • Girls experienced significant trauma during these transitions as well as social isolation and lack of support following marriage.

The Progress

The Population Council is one of the few organizations in sub-Saharan Africa whose programs have produced significant delays in marriage and increases in school enrollment among girls aged 10–14.

The Council’s Berhane Hewan program in Ethiopia is one of the first rigorously evaluated projects with the explicit objective of increasing the age at marriage. It takes a multi-faceted approach—engaging girls, their families, and their communities—to building adolescent girls’ social, health, and economic assets and reducing their vulnerability.

“Community conversations” are used to encourage communities to discuss the effects of child marriage. Families are offered school supplies to help overcome the economic barriers to sending girls to school. And families who keep girls unmarried during the two-year enrollment are awarded a sheep or a goat.

An early evaluation of the project found that girls aged 10–14 in the experimental site were 90% less likely to be married at the end of the two-year enrollment, compared to girls in the control site, and three times more likely to be in school. Married girls in the project site were three times more likely to be using family planning methods compared to married girls in the control site.

Berhane Hewan was awarded first prize in a 2013 UNFPA contest to identify good practices related to adolescents and youth; judging criteria included relevance, innovation, impact, and reproducibility.

However, the program evaluation was unable to determine which component of the intervention had the most impact. To generate this evidence, the Council has expanded the study in Ethiopia and also launched and is rigorously evaluating similar approaches in Burkina Faso and Tanzania. The Council is testing the relative effectiveness of four strategies to delay the age at marriage:

  • Informing communities about the dangers of child marriage using community meetings and the engagement of religious leaders. The information delivered to communities will include the negative health and development consequences of child marriage as well as the importance of delaying first birth, spacing births, and preventing HIV and other STIs within marriage to safeguard the health of women and their children.
  • Supporting girls’ education with cost-effective efforts, such as providing girls with school supplies or uniforms, making it easier for families to send girls to school.
  • Providing direct incentives to families for keeping girls unmarried. For example, households will receive chickens or a goat in exchange for keeping girls unmarried for a certain period of time.
  • Combining all these approaches.

The Impact

Based on results from this research, the Council will work with partners in each of the countries to expand successful approaches to increase the age at marriage.

Principal Investigator

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