New research on adolescent experience of marriage, cohabition, divorce and parenthood

New research from the Young Marriage and Parenthood (YMAPS) study, published today, hears from married, cohabiting, and divorced adolescents, and exposes the reality of their lives in Ethiopia, India (Andhra Pradesh and Telengana), Peru and Zambia.

For young people in many countries, adolescence should be a time when the world opens up as they choose their future paths. In 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals promised, among many other things, an end to marriage under 18 by 2030. As a result of this, and many other measures, the numbers of children, particularly girls, who are married under 18 has been decreasing globally.

However, the global coronavirus pandemic could mean that these gains are under threat. Past experiences of crises and pandemics, including Ebola, have found that, particularly among the poorest groups, child marriage increases as parents struggle to feed their children and want to protect their daughters (Menéndez, C. Et al  2015 and Plan International, 2020). 

YMAPS (conducted between 2017 and 2020) found that in all four study countries, marriage under 18 is now illegal, and most adolescents say they want to get married in their twenties. Both parents and children believe that life expectations and gender equality have improved for this generation. 

But strict prohibitions on girls having sex before marriage, little knowledge of contraception, unplanned pregnancies, a lack of familial resources, and entrenched gendered power imbalances, mean that many, especially girls, still marry or start cohabiting under 18.   

The study was unusual in that it focused not only on girls and young women, but also on boys and young men. Focus groups were also conducted with couples, families and the wider community. 

Of the 345 young people interviewed in the study, many said they had not wanted to get married and felt they had been too young, leaving them struggling to return to school or earn a decent living, and creating tensions within couples. Often young couples had to live with the husband’s family despite a wish to live independently.

While we know some of the causes of adolescent marriage, little, if anything is known, about what life is like for young people who are married or parents in their teens. We found that their lives had changed very little from those of their parents, and continue to be marked by power imbalances and lack of opportunity,’ said Gillian Mann, the report’s co-author.

Once married or cohabiting, young women and young men quickly slip into traditional roles, with the woman seen as the caregiver and the man as the breadwinner, a dynamic which is often not sustainable when there is little paid work available. Sometimes resulting tensions lead to violence against young wives. For those who married in order to escape violence in their family home, it is particularly concerning to find themselves facing a similar situation in their new relationships.

Sunitha, in India, had not wanted to marry at 13 but had not felt able to go against the wishes of her elders. She fell pregnant and had a baby, but the relationship deteriorated, and she felt unable even to leave the house or visit her parents. In addition, she started to face violence from her husband: ‘If I lay down when I don’t feel well, he hits me. If there is an argument he hits me.

The study also found that an increasing number of young people in Ethiopia, Peru and Zambia are cohabiting rather than entering formal marriages, often due to cost. This leaves young women in more vulnerable situations if the relationship breaks down, particularly if there are children. Among a number of the couples in the study who had divorced or separated, young women often said they were happier now than when they were married, provided they had enough to live on.

While girls and young women face the most serious consequences of adolescent marriage, the voices of the young men they marry are rarely heard, ' said Gina Crivello, the report’s co-author.

Discussions with boys and young men, many of whom had married before they were ready, found that most felt that marriage had imposed a series of responsibilities they were unable to meet. ‘My life was good when I was alone because I used to be at school and things were ok but now things are not ok because I need to find food for my child to eat, I need to look for clothes for my child and I have to do piece work.’ said this young married man in Zambia.

Both young men and young women revealed that they had started sexual relationships with very little knowledge about sex, or contraception and abortion, and no understanding of the demands and challenges that accompany intimate relationships. They widely reported health staff to be judgemental and unfriendly.  Other services and support for young married, cohabiting or divorced adolescents and their children were also lacking. There was little practical support to ensure that they could continue their education, as many of them wished, and almost no publicly available affordable childcare. 

The coronavirus pandemic, already bringing with it new and deep economic pressures on households is likely to constrain young people’s choices as they and their families are forced to find ways to cope. One of these coping strategies may be to marry or cohabitate before they feel ready to do so, The study has come up with 16 recommendations for policy makers and programme implementers, many of which may be particularly valuable in the context of the current pandemic. 

For example, taking account of married and cohabiting adolescents in disaster relief, emergency, and poverty alleviation and livelihoods strategies, alignment of laws banning child marriage, as well as specific measures toensure that young married and cohabiting couples can continue their education and build decent livelihoods. 

There needs to be a focus on health, not just in terms of COVID-19, but focusing on adolescent-friendly sexual and reproductive health services. If the danger of an increase in domestic violence is to be avoided, gender-transformative programming, including for boys and young men and the wider community is needed.  Support networks for young married or cohabiting girls and women need to be strengthened, and tailored services fordivorced and separated young people. More research on the lives of married, cohabiting or divorced adolescents is needed.

Young people deserve our respect and support. The India country report for this study noted, ‘Life does not end for those young people who marry or cohabit or who become mothers [or fathers] in childhood.’ Despite the difficulties they experience, many young people in this study remain hopeful. They take great joy and pride in their children, and have clear ideas on how they want to build a better life for the next generation. We need to make sure that the pandemic does not take these dreams away by reversing the gains already made, or by reinforcing the inequalities that deprive these children, and their children, of the future they deserve.