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Girls, not brides: Study explores what drives early marriages among girls in India and Ethiopia

Read time: 3 mins

Marrying off girls before they are eighteen years of age, also called early marriage, is a norm in many communities across the world. It is estimated that 15 million girls are married by the age of 18 each year in the world. India has the highest number of child marriages in the world with 27% of its girls married off early, albeit the practice has been declared illegal. In Ethiopia, two in every five girls are married before they turn 18. Early marriage has various social consequences, with discontinuation of education being the pronounced one. Girls are pulled out of school, married off and are expected to shoulder the responsibility of the household.

In a recent study, researchers from India, Ethiopia and the USA have investigated how education and early marriage are related by studying the cases of affected girls in India and Ethiopia. “India and Ethiopia are among nations with the highest rates of child marriage in the world and given their population size, this amounts to substantial numbers of affected girls in these nations”, says Dr. Anita Raj, Director of the University of California, San Diego’s Center on Gender Equity and Health, and the corresponding author of the study.

In this study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, the researchers have analysed how early marriage and low income result in the cessation of education for these girls. They used data collected from 45 participants of two social outreach programmes—Oromia Development Association (ODA), run in Oromia region of Ethiopia and Regional Initiative for Sexual Health for Today’s Adolescents (RISHTA), from Jharkhand in India. Both these programmes educate participants about early marriage and associated health risks, contraception and family planning, and provide vocational training to help build better career opportunities for them.

The researchers found that girls education was often devalued in many communities as they believed that educated girls turn hostile to marriage and parents, and may engage in premarital sex, resulting in their expulsion from their communities. Many parents thought that such practices reduce the ‘value’ of the girl in the marriage market. The associated financial costs of education also acted as another barrier. There were also fewer career opportunities for well-educated women, further dissuading them from pursuing secondary education. Problems of poor infrastructure and harassment of school-going girls were found only in Ethiopia.

In spite of such constraints, the researchers noticed that parental support and assistance from outreach programmes, like ODA and RISHTA, helped young girls complete their secondary education. In many cases, girls were found to be motivated to continue studying and become self-reliant. Literacy was slowly being recognised as beneficial as it seemed to improve life skills, better family planning skills, enhance career opportunities and provide financial independence among many others.

The study involves data from two specific case studies in two diverse countries, and hence, the results cannot be generalised, say the authors. The data may also be biased since the participants involved in the study were all exposed to some social outreach programme spreading awareness about continuing their education.

“I think that the findings were specific to girls exposed to this child marriage prevention/sexual health promotion program for girls, and in contexts where the early marriage of girls remains the norm”, agrees Dr Raj. The study also did not focus on the girl’s education irrespective of the girls marital status and hence the reasons for dropping out of school cannot be accurately pinpointed.

Today, there are many government-run initiatives in both these countries to encourage continued education of girls, which could lower the rate of early marriages. However, unless there is an accompanying social change, these are inadequate, opine the researchers.

“Educating girls in the absence of broader social change to build upon girls’ developed strengths and with a gender equality lens will be inadequate to address early marriage and the sequelae of social and health concerns that accompany it”, they conclude.