This article has been published in Enabling Education Review 3
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Title: Education beyond schools: Meeting the needs of child brides in Africa
Author: Howard-Merrill, L and Otoo-Oyortey, N
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2014

Education beyond schools: Meeting the needs of child brides in Africa

Lottie Howard-Merrill and Naana Otoo-Oyortey

Supporting child brides to continue their education, formal or non-formal, is an important step towards improving the lives of married girls and child mothers. Using an innovative participatory research method, FORWARD (Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development) has enabled child brides in Amhara, Ethiopia and Tarime, Tanzania to become the researchers, a practical form of education in itself.

Child marriage is a formal or informal union where one or both spouses are younger than 18. Child marriage happens to girls more often than boys, and is detrimental to girls’ day-to-day lives and future potential. In Amhara, Ethiopia half of women aged 20-49 years were first married between the ages of seven and 15;1and in Tanzania, 37% of women aged 20-24 were married or in a union before age 18.2

Participatory Ethnographic Evaluation Research (PEER) was developed by Swansea University and Options Consultancy Services Ltd. Using PEER, FORWARD has explored how child marriage affects girls’ access to education. Following the PEER methodology, child brides were trained to interview girls like themselves, giving them skills and guidance to discuss their experiences with other affected girls. Their quotes illustrate this article.

‘If I am educated, I will get a good job and find a good man. But if I remain as I am the whole cycle will occur again. I will have to marry a [local] man and will be beaten’. (Tanzania)

PEER findings
In Tanzania and Ethiopia, the traditional beliefs and practices that influence child marriage are deeply rooted. In both countries girls are forced to prioritise household and familial duties over education. This is exacerbated by the perceived lack of jobs for girls and options, whether educated or not, in rural areas. Consequently, families in financial difficulty remove their daughters from school as a survival strategy. Girls who are allowed to stay in school are often overburdened with domestic work, and their academic performance suffers. Some girls are promised a continued education after marriage, but this promise is rarely kept.

‘I used to get very good marks at school but when they told me I was going to get married, I couldn’t concentrate and my grades became very low’. (Ethiopia)

Because of the influence of girls’ chastity on family honour, parents stop their daughters attending school due to fears the girls may get boyfriends or become pregnant, and bring shame to the family.

The PEER interviewees expressed feelings of loss and regret at not being able to complete their education. Forced to leave their families, teachers and friends at school, many felt lonely and isolated. Many also felt inferior, stigmatised and of lower status than their peers who remained in education. The child brides also felt that leaving school reduced their knowledge about health and how to care for themselves and their children.

‘She tries to fit in by doing everything the older people do in her community. However, she can’t, as there will be a gap of experience. So she gets emotionally hurt’. (Ethiopia)

PEER as a form of non-formal education
The PEER process is itself a form of non-formal education, as carrying out interviews provides the participants with invaluable research and communication skills. The participants reported an improved knowledge of sexual and reproductive health, especially with regards to child marriage. During the research, they could share their concerns and ideas, creating and strengthening a support network. They also came to recognise their position as ‘experts’ on child marriage. Empowered and confident, the PEER participants used end-of-research workshops to make recommendations for programmes addressing child marriage.

In response to these recommendations, FORWARD has partnered with local organisations in Ethiopia and Tanzania to carry out non-formal education initiatives. The PEER participants formed networks and girls clubs through which girls have access to information and training on sexual and reproductive health. This has enabled child brides to have improved confidence and knowledge to report gender-based violence to the police. In addition, the networks and clubs signpost girls to relevant services, and offer emotional support to their peers. The girls’ clubs address child marriage in meetings and house-to-house visits and they also are planning to develop a resource centre, where girls can access training, leadership skills and information.

The girls’ club members have undergone business skills and entrepreneurship training, including book-keeping, financial management and sales marketing. In Amhara the girls used their training to start a dairy farming business. In Tanzania they have created tailoring, maize farming, gardening and knitting businesses. Previously economically dependent, the girls feel more self-sufficient and have greater decision-making power.

Conclusions and recommendations
Non-formal education can be instrumental in changing the lives of child brides. Providing income generation training helps girls become more independent, improves their social standing and helps to break the cycle of poverty. Making girls aware of their rights and available services improves the health of whole families. Confident, informed, passionate, and united networks of child brides speak out against child marriage.

Successful non-formal education and associated programmes must tackle the harmful practices and beliefs which cause child marriage and block girls from their education. This needs to be done sensitively, to avoid resistance or backlash, and must acknowledge the importance of family honour.

Further reading (available on FORWARD’s website):

  • Voices of Child Brides and Child Mothers in Tanzania, A PEER Report on Child Marriage, FORWARD and Children’s Dignity Forum, London, 2010.
  • No Girl Should be a Child Bride, Taking Action to End Child Marriage in Lay Armachiho District, Amhara Region, Ethiopia, FORWARD and ProFutures Development Initiative, London 2014.

Contact: FORWARD
Suite 2.1 Chandelier Building, 8 Scrubs Lane, London, NW10 6RB, UK


1 Central Statistical Agency [Ethiopia] and ICF International (2012) Ethiopia Demographic and Health Survey 2011, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Calverton, Maryland, USA: Central Statistical Agency and ICF International
2 National Bureau of Statistics (2011), Tanzania Demographic and Health Survey 2010, Dar Es Salaam: National Bureau of Statistics

Peer research in Ethiopia
©  FORWARDPeer research in Ethiopia © FORWARD