As applied researchers, we often unearth evidence that allows us develop new insights. These insights help us solve a problem or understand an issue, possibly something that others have previously explored. We usually undertake this research because the problem, despite possibly years of investment and hard work, still exists. But what happens when – even by tackling the issue from a different angle – we find the same truths, the same underlying challenges, and still, we have no simple solution to solve the problem?
In a recent study, ICRW sought to understand the drivers of child marriage in two locations: Kisumu, Kenya and Central Province, Zambia. After talking with adolescent girls and boys, parents, teachers, young married men and women, and influential people in each of these regions, we found that the drivers of early marriage were deeply grounded in an environment of gender inequality and economic insecurity. This economic insecurity meant that girls faced challenges staying in school because of the cost of secondary education, which their often financially-constrained families could not afford. We also found that because of these economic constraints, adolescent girls lacked basic necessities to get through daily life, including even underwear and sanitary napkins.
Our research showed that while boys may drop out of school to find work, there were few economic opportunities available to adolescent girls and young women, who, as a result, often developed relationships with men who could provide some of those basic needs. Given limited access to reproductive health information and services, many of these girls became pregnant, and if they had not already left school, were then forced to drop out due to pregnancy. Once pregnant, most girls left their parents’ or family home and moved in with the father of their child or another man, and despite their young age, began their lives as “adult” women, with limited economic and social options.
This pathway of school dropout and early pregnancy leading to early marriage is common in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa and to other parts of the world. Also common are the underlying factors in the girls’ environment, including economic insecurity and gender inequality. And while this information was not new or surprising, we heard very clearly from our local partners in both Kenya and Zambia that the very persistence of this pathway and continued inability to disrupt it, are themselves important findings.
Based on this research, we can identify existing and new interventions that may work to break the pathways, such as those that improve parent and child communication, and those that provide comprehensive sexuality education and youth-friendly reproductive health services. These programs can be complex and need to be context-specific and community-driven, and to improve them we need to ask critical questions and challenge our typical approach in how we design, implement and test them.
However, we cannot overlook the clear need for even larger investment and commitment over longer periods if we are to address the basic environmental factors – economic insecurity and gender inequality – that, if not tackled, will always limit and constrain the effectiveness of the interventions. A girl and her family can have open communication about sexuality, she can have access to contraceptives in a youth-friendly setting, but the effect these can have on child marriage is limited if she still has to leave school because her family cannot pay her school fees, or if when she finishes school there are limited opportunities for women to earn an income in her community.
This research shows that we must think and act bigger, scale up effective programs, and adapt and test new interventions to shift the very environments in which vulnerable girls live and help ensure that girls are able to marry if, whom and when they chose.
For more information about the study, funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and conducted in collaboration with Plan International in Zambia and Kisumu Medical Education Trust (KMET) in Kenya, download the full-length report.