Project

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

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

The Issue

Each year, more than 14 million girls around the world get married before the age of 18. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 1 in 10 girls are married before the age of 15. Four in ten are married before the age of 18.

When girls are married as children, their educational opportunities and future prosperity are limited, they are more likely to experience intimate partner violence, and they are at greater risk for early and unwanted sexual contact, which can result in HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, as well as unintended pregnancy.

Despite laws against it and growing public opposition, child marriage remains prevalent, especially in hotspots 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 was one of the first rigorously evaluated projects with the explicit objective of increasing the age at marriage. It took 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” were used to encourage communities to discuss the effects of child marriage. Families were offered school supplies to help overcome the economic barriers to sending girls to school. And families who kept girls unmarried during the two-year enrollment were 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 expanded the study in Ethiopia and also launched similar approaches in Burkina Faso and Tanzania. The Council evaluated the effectiveness of four strategies to delay age at marriage among girls:

  • Informing communities about the dangers of child marriage using community meetings and the engagement of religious leaders.
  • 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 conditional economic incentives to families for keeping girls unmarried. For example, girls received chickens or a goat if they remained unmarried and in school for the two-year duration of the project.
  • Combining all these approaches.

The study found that strategies to delay child marriage that are designed to be simple and sustainable work best. In Ethiopia, it was possible to significantly delay child marriage with the following interventions:

  • In communities where girls were offered educational support, girls aged 12–14 were 94% less likely to be married at endline than were girls in that age range at baseline.
  • In communities where girls were offered two chickens for every year they remained unmarried and in school, girls aged 15–17 were half as likely to be married at endline than were girls in that age range at baseline.
  • In communities that were engaged in conversations about the value of educating girls and the harms of child marriage, girls aged 12–14 were two-thirds less likely to be married at endline than were girls in that age range at baseline.
  • In communities where all the strategies were employed, girls aged 15–17 were two-thirds less likely to be married at endline than were girls in that age range at baseline.

In Tanzania, in communities where girls were offered goats for remaining unmarried and in school, girls aged 15–17 were two-thirds less likely to be unmarried than girls of the same age who lived in a comparison area where the program was not offered. The interventions to keep girls aged 12–14 unmarried and in school did not achieve a statistically significant effect. However, in the case of the full model, which included provision of all three interventions, there is evidence of a positive effect among girls aged 12–14 and 15–17.

The Population Council’s project in Burkina Faso is ongoing; it launched approximately one year after the Ethiopia and Tanzania studies.

The study also examined the cost of implementing each of the four strategies that were tested, per girl per year, in each country—data that are seldom gathered for programs seeking to improve the lives of adolescent girls.

In Ethiopia:

  • School supplies cost $17 per girl per year
  • Community conversations cost $30 per girl per year
  • Conditional economic incentives, 2 chickens, cost $32 per girl per year
  • The full model, providing all three interventions, costs $44 per girl per year

In Tanzania:

  • Community conversations cost $11 per girl per year
  • School supplies cost $22 per girl per year
  • Conditional economic incentives, one goat, cost $107 per girl per year
  • The full model, providing all three interventions, costs $117 per girl per year

The Impact

Results from the research are being shared with policymakers and program managers to expand successful approaches to increase the age at marriage. Recommendations include:

  • Recognize the economic elements of child marriage. Marrying girls as children is often a response to poverty, seasonal scarcities, and emergency circumstances—not just a matter of tradition. Providing economic incentives can delay child marriage and keep girls in school.
  • Invest in the tough areas. The study was conducted in child marriage hotspots where large proportions of girls get married as children. It is possible to succeed, even in difficult situations, and it’s important to invest where girls are most at risk.
  • Tailor programs by age and gender. The study found that what works for younger girls—under 15—was different from what works for girls over 15. When programs are tailored, they can have an impact.
  • Avoid duplicating efforts. Virtually all regions with high levels of child marriage are in countries that receive development assistance from countries that have made commitments to end child marriage. To have the greatest possible effect, donors and NGOs should avoid duplicating efforts.

Principal Investigator

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