GRINNELL, Iowa — In 2000, nine of Ethiopia’s 11 autonomous regions raised their minimum age of marriage for girls. This policy change relating to child marriage in Ethiopia created the perfect natural experiment to study the effects of laws on underage marriage. Tamara McGavock, an assistant professor of economics at Grinnell College, undertook the process of determining these effects through indicators of years of schooling, employment and birth rates.
Work of Tamara McGavock
McGavock first came across this topic when she interned at the World Bank while studying as a graduate student at Cornell University. Through her time there, she became aware of organizations, like Girls Not Brides, that work to curb child marriage globally and became curious about the true effects of child marriage on a girl’s life. “I was a graduate student hungry for examples of high-quality data work and policy changes that I could use that were natural experiments,” says McGavock in an interview with The Borgen Project.
The nature of the topic limits the field of research surrounding child marriage. A researcher who wants to study those effects cannot simply conduct an experiment for ethical reasons. Where a chemist may be able to set a control group and experiment group, one cannot simply dictate the marriage age of different groups of girls to see the varying effects. As a result, relying on the long-term effects of real policy change, also known as a natural experiment, is the best way to study this topic.
Harms of Child Marriage
Child marriage in Ethiopia, and in general, has negative impacts on the health, education and well-being of young brides. The 2005 Demographic And Health Survey in Ethiopia reveals that 85% of girls married by 15 years old are illiterate. In contrast, the illiteracy rate stands at 39% for unmarried girls between 15 and 24 years old. Additionally, just 12% of married girls aged between 15 and 19 “were enrolled in school,” according to the Population Reference Bureau (PBS).
The health effects of early marriage are also important to note. Becoming sexually active and giving birth at a young age can both be harmful to the physical health of married girls. Young mothers are more prone to maternal death, prolonged/obstructed labor and obstetric fistula — when the birth canal tears and forms “a hole between the birth canal and bladder and/or rectum” — the UNFPA says. “There are health implications particularly connected to being a very small or very young person when you give birth for the first time […] It’s [a]very traumatic experience, physically,” says McGavock.
Child Marriage in Ethiopia
Prior to 2000, the minimum age for a girl to marry in Ethiopia stood at 15. With family law reforms, the minimum age became 18, or 16 and 17 with parental permission. The minimum age for boys to marry stayed constant at 18.
According to UNICEF, by 2011, a survey of first marriages of women between 25 and 59 indicated that 30% of women in this age group had entered into marriages by the age of 15 and almost two-thirds found themselves married by 18. Impoverished girls in rural areas are also more likely to marry young than more financially stable girls in urban areas.
Child marriage rates in Ethiopia remain high but have decreased significantly in comparison to before the legal reforms took place. The average age of marriage in Ethiopia rose “from just below age 17 [10 years pre-reform] to just over 18 years old,” after the reform, McGavock’s research paper indicates. Additionally, the research paper finds that “the reform decreased the probability that marriages involved a girl under age 16 by 6.8 percentage points, or 17[%] relative to the mean at baseline.” McGavock finds that “the reform was most effective at delaying early teen marriages in districts where the earliest marriages were more common pre-reform.”
Incentivizing Impoverished Households
Additionally, after the implementation of the new laws regarding child marriage in Ethiopia, many nonprofits in collaboration with the Ethiopian government worked to incentivize later marriage. McGavock needed to account for the work of these organizations in her research to ensure that she studied the effect of the policy change only.
One program that she had to take into account is the free primary school initiative that started in Ethiopia in the 1990s. This reform meant that parents would not have to pay school fees for primary-level education.
She also notes the Berhane Hewan program implemented between 2004 and 2006, which provided a variety of essential resources to families in the Amhara region who promised to withhold marrying their daughters for two years. The program organized “community conversations” regarding the harms of child marriage in Ethiopia to assist in swaying public opinion. These efforts saw improvements in “girls’ school enrollment, age at marriage, reproductive health knowledge and contraceptive use.”
Effects of Policy
The question that McGavock sought to answer, however, was not whether these nonprofits had an impact on child marriage, but the impact of the policy itself. After first finding that the policy was successful in raising the average age of marriage and reducing child marriage in Ethiopia, she then went on to study the secondary effects of the policy reform.
First, she examines whether delayed marriage has an effect on the level of education a woman receives and her employment — McGavock finds very little evidence that suggests so. She notes that issues like employment and education are complex and deal with a variety of factors outside of marriage that one needs to take into account as well.
Delays in Marriage and Child Birth
The second set of indicators that McGavock looks into involve fertility and the age of the girl when she has her first child. She found that those married after the policy change were 2.9 percentage points less likely to have a child at the time of the study. There is an additional benefit as women who marry older are more likely to have increased, “knowledge about or access to better quality prenatal, delivery or postnatal care in ways that lead to other gains in child health.” The subsequent effect of later and more informed birth is lessened child mortality and better health of the mother pre and post-labor.
The policy implications of McGavock’s study are that such laws are at least somewhat effective in raising the average age of marriage and de-incentivizing underage marriage. Delayed marriages likely benefit the reproductive health of married women. That being said, further work is necessary to encourage employment and further education among women beyond raising the age of marriage.
The essential question explored by McGavock in her research article “Here Waits the Bride? The effects of Ethiopia’s child marriage laws” is to see how government intervention through policy impacts rates of child marriage in Ethiopia. Ultimately, she finds that legal reforms can alter behaviors and norms even amid deeply entrenched cultural traditions. McGavock asserts, “cultural traditions around gender norms can be slow-moving, but institutional reforms can also bring changes that are cumulative and self-reinforcing.”
– Eleanor Corbin