Journal Article

Adolescent girls’ migration and its impact on early marriage: Qualitative findings in Mali

Adolescent girls in West Africa are migrating in search of educational and livelihood opportunities. In Mali, early marriage (before the legal age of 16) is a common practice. This paper builds on prior research on female migration that focused on the direct influences of migration on marriage and explores the wider social impact of rising female migration in sending communities by examining direct and indirect effects and intended and unintended consequences. This study examines perceptions about migration among girls and their parents including how it influences marital timing, marriage preparations, marriage practices, and marital relations. Qualitative data were collected from 140 adolescent girls and 115 parents of adolescent girls in rural areas in focus group discussions (FGDs) (n = 31) and in-depth interviews (IDIs) (n = 41) to inform how girls’ migration patterns might influence program recruitment strategies and content for an intervention aimed at addressing early marriage in Mali. Our findings concur with earlier studies that migration has direct effects on marriage because it allows girls to both avoid early marriage and prepare for marriage through the assembly of goods and wares to bring to their conjugal homes. Despite some of the perceived risks of migration on marriage, the indirect effects of migration include allowing girls to see different types of marriage practices and marital relationships between husbands and wives and potentially allowing migrant girls to exert more influence over the marital process compared to non-migrants. However, migration can expose girls to new ideas and alternatives that may be incongruent with cultural expectations for them once they return to their communities. This study suggests that migration is seen as an inevitable part of life for many adolescent girls in Mali. Girls who migrate may return to their villages with not only items or income that provide direct benefits to a marriage, but also viewpoints on the expectations for women and girls in their communities that indirectly influence marital relationships. Although this can be challenging for individual returned girls in terms of reintegration, these new expectations may, over time, lead to social changes that influence migrants and non-migrants. Program strategies and approaches must consider the possibility of migration as an important aspect of every adolescent girl’s opportunity structure. The qualitative data suggests that certain skills are critical for adolescent girls. Programs should emphasize the acquisition of relevant skills such as communication, risk assessment, negotiation and money management in ways that are relevant for migrants and non-migrants.