ICRW presents findings on married adolescents at Wilson Center

Article Date

01 August 2014

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Coming of age as an adolescent occurs with its own inherent vulnerabilities anywhere around the world. When you then add on the pressures of being married early, pregnant, impoverished, HIV positive or any combination of those, you’re looking at a reality that many of the world’s 600 million adolescent girls are currently facing.

This week, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) joined USAID’s Office of HIV/AIDS, CARE and Pathfinder International at the Wilson Center to present findings on the status of married adolescent girls in various low and middle-income countries. While methodology and regions studied varied among their respective work, the experts made it abundantly clear that meeting the needs of this often-marginalized group is paramount to tackling challenges communities face, including gender equality and poverty.

Researchers agree that adolescence is a crucial point in an individual’s development, yet there is still limited research on how girls live their lives during this unique period. This is particularly true, panelists  agreed, for adolescent girls who are married before the age of 18.

ICRW is among the organizations leading the effort to increase the pool of research on young women, particularly married adolescents, understanding the importance of including young women in conversations about development efforts. This is a critical step because adolescent girls and young women have such distinct potential to help their communities prosper.

Early and forced marriage makes girls particularly vulnerable because they often are socially isolated, unable to receive an education and are more likely to experience high-risk pregnancies that put their health—and the health of their baby—in jeopardy. While presenting her organization’s own findings at the Wilson Center, Callie Simon of Pathfinder International spoke of this, noting there are few programs in West Africa that address the needs and rights of young married women.

ICRW’s Senior Director of Gender, Population and Development Suzanne Petroni shared findings from a recent study about the sexual and reproductive health and needs of married and unmarried girls several slums in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The study, funded by the World Bank, found that one-quarter of the girls aged 15 to 17 living in the slums were already married. Among married girls, the average age at which they got married was 15.2, but some had been as young as nine or 10.

Petroni argued that “tackling the gender norms that drive girls to want to become a wife and mother must be part of a comprehensive package of providing adolescents with family planning and other sexual and reproductive health information and services.”  

While efforts to end child marriage have been, and should continue to be, ramped up in recent years, meeting the unique needs of young brides already married has been by and large been neglected in developmental programming efforts. Programs like TESFA, implemented by CARE and evaluated by ICRW, demonstrate the effectiveness of attempting to ease burdens of early marriage for women and their families. As described by Doris Bartel, senior director of gender and empowerment at CARE, research on the project, which took place in Amhara, Ethiopia where 74 percent of women aged 20-24 were married before 18., indicated that by providing married girls with essential health information, opportunities to develop support networks with other girls, and financial and livelihood training, married girls’ lives were greatly enhanced. This study was particularly notable because it was one of the first of its kind that attempted to address the needs of married young women.

As the speakers expressed, the research presented at this week’s event only skim the surface of what is needed to examine and understand the lives of this population.  That is why next week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. is so promising. The Summit’s theme, “Investing in the Next Generation,” acknowledges the burgeoning potential of today’s youth to change the course of their country’s development. Nations in Africa have some of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, and acknowledging the needs of adolescents, married and unmarried, should be a priority. Now is the chance for leaders to come together to talk about the next steps necessary for their countries’ continued development.

The experiences adolescents can shape the course of their lives, which then has exponential ripple effects on their families, communities and nations. It’s clear, now more than ever, that understanding and meeting the needs of those adolescents may be the key to unlocking positive transformations for generations to come.

To watch the webcast of the event, click here.