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Tracing the Consequences of Child PovertyEvidence from the Young Lives study of Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam$

Jo Boyden, Andrew Dawes, Paul Dornan, and Colin Tredoux

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781447348313

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447348313.001.0001

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Growing up in a time of extraordinary change

Growing up in a time of extraordinary change

(p.29) Three Growing up in a time of extraordinary change
Tracing the Consequences of Child Poverty

Jo Boyden

Andrew Dawes

Paul Dornan

Colin Tredoux

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter highlights some of the major social and economic trends in the Young Lives study countries over the past 15 years and briefly indicates how such trends have affected and are perceived by sample children, their caregivers, and households. There have been many positive developments, as poverty levels and stunting rates have declined, and infrastructure and service access improved. Intergenerational progress has also been observed, with many children experiencing better health and more education than the previous generation. Gender inequalities in access to education have decreased and more young women are able to delay marriage and parenthood. Moreover, new technologies have brought many benefits, expanding children's horizons. However, significant social and economic disparities persist, and children in rural areas and from minority groups continue to face disadvantages across many aspects of their lives.

Keywords:   social trends, economic trends, children, poverty, education, intergenerational progress, health, gender inequalities, rural children, minority groups

The Young Lives children have grown up during a period of rapid economic, social and policy change. The bioecological model points to the importance of this national and community context in shaping the circumstances facing children directly or via the household. This chapter highlights how living standards and access to basic services have improved across the study period. It shows that Young Lives children enjoy better circumstances than did their parents when they were young, and also that many aspects of life are better for the Younger Cohort than they were for the Older Cohort at the same ages. Changes in access to education between the generations are particularly dramatic. The rise of education around the world is changing norms, with modern childhood becoming increasingly synonymous with schooling. While access to basic services in the four countries clearly improved over the study period, risks and shocks remained common, particularly in rural areas. And while children in cities and towns were often doing better than those in rural areas, parents’ accounts highlighted concerns over new risks facing children.

The current generation of children is doing much better than previous generations

Young Lives has traced children’s evolving circumstances by assessing household wealth, caregiver situation, and community infrastructure and services regularly at each survey round. Rapid economic growth has led to real changes for Young Lives children, households and communities. These changes have largely been for the better. Levels of poverty have reduced, access to infrastructure and services has expanded, children enjoy better housing conditions, and families report owning more durables such as radios and bicycles.

The pace of change has been extraordinary. This is evident from the case of Latha, who lives in Katur, a rural village in the Rayalaseema region of United Andhra Pradesh. The area is prone to drought, with high levels of seasonal out-migration. In 2014, Latha and her mother discussed how life had changed. Fewer people live in desperate (p.30) poverty; and social protection schemes and self-help groups have raised wages and reduced the number of people who migrate for work (Pells and Woodhead, 2014). Latha says families’ dependence on powerful local interests has decreased:

Then, people used to go for work for Reddy [a socially and economically powerful landowning caste] households … they only had food only if we worked for them, madam. Otherwise our stomachs were empty. … Now, it’s not like that.

(Interview transcript)

Her mother is clear that Latha’s life has been better than her own: ‘She has not undergone the sufferings and pain as I had gone through.’ She explains that water and electricity supplies have improved women’s daily lives:

Those days there was no electricity, there was no street taps and water. For water we used to go to wells and fetch water, there were no plastic pots, we used to buy the mud pots and use to get water with them. She [Latha] never went so far for water, as I had gone. They had put up a borehole and the village Sarpanch won the elections so he had put these taps.

(Interview transcript)

In those days, we had to grind everything manually in the grinding stones every day, then we had to prepare roti. There was no electricity, we have [sic] to depend on kerosene lamps, now they have electricity, machines. Now to prepare food, you just take the rice and wash and cook it, that’s it.

(Interview transcript)

The inhabitants of Katur can now catch a bus by walking to the main road, and motorised rickshaws have started coming right into the village. Access to health services has improved, even if people still have to travel for treatment, and few women give birth at home. Few Young Lives mothers in rural areas went to school. Latha’s mother reported: ‘I never stepped through the entrance of the school’ (interview transcript). At the age of 5 or so, she and her siblings would stay alone at home while their parents worked, and by early adolescence, she was working in the fields as an agricultural labourer. In common with many of the Young Lives caregivers, she says attitudes to education have transformed, including attitudes to girls’ schooling:

(p.31) Now the girls are studying. Those days there was no school and no one showed an interest in education. Now everyone wants to study so that they will get one or the other job.… At least they may live happily, and they need not lead a donkey’s life as we had lived.

(Interview transcript)

Across the study many Young Lives families reported improved access to electricity, water, and other basic services, with important benefits for children’s nutrition, study, workloads, health and dignity. One way of showing just how much better the lives of the current generation of children are than the lives of previous generations is by comparing the outcomes of the Young Lives children with those of their caregivers. For example, significant progress in health, nutrition and service access is shown by the fact that the average 22-year-old girl in the Older Cohort is taller than her mother by 2.5 centimetres in United Andhra Pradesh, 4.6 centimetres in Peru, and 3.6 centimetres in Vietnam.1 The gains in Peru are particularly striking, but they are consistent across the countries, although in Ethiopia the gains are small.

Nearly all Young Lives children enrolled in school for a significant portion of the study period. The majority stayed at school well into their teenage years, extending childhood and opening up a period of adolescence between childhood and adulthood. Figure 3.1 shows that a high proportion of the Older Cohort had more education than their parents, the most dramatic disparity being between mothers and daughters, suggesting a narrowing of gendered inequalities. The differences were especially large in Ethiopia and United Andhra Pradesh.

Expanded school access has often been widely welcomed by children and families as allowing young people to access better jobs. Educational expansion is also associated with extraordinarily high education aspirations among Young Lives children and caregivers, even if realities often do not live up to hopes. When the Younger Cohort children were aged 12 years, the majority of their caregivers – 81% in Peru, 77% in Ethiopia, 75% in Vietnam and 73% in United Andhra Pradesh – aspired for them to reach tertiary education. Young Lives caregivers certainly associate expanded school access with many improvements in the children’s lives. One Young Lives aunt, a rural to urban migrant in Vietnam, said: ‘Compared with my niece’s situation now, it is a great difference, as different as is the heaven from the earth … I had to struggle to survive, otherwise I could not (p.32)

Growing up in a time of extraordinary change

Figure 3.1: Primary and secondary school enrolment for the Older Cohort by age 22 compared with that of their parents (%)

exist’ (interview transcript). The grandmother of a girl in Ethiopia commented:

During our time, we were unable to decide on our life, but today children have the right to decide. If parents attempt to marry them without their permission, they will sue their parents.… Children today are very much wise. … Her life will definitely be good because she will be educated and may even marry someone who is educated.

(Interview transcript)

(p.33) Above all, across very different contexts school is seen as both an exit route from poverty and manual labour and the marker of a decent life:

We did not know that education was very important as we do now … Adugna’s life is better than mine. For one thing, he is learning with freedom; he has time to go to school. We did not have time and girls were not attending school in our area. When I compare my life with that of Adugna, the difference is like the sky and the earth.

(Adugna’s mother, Ethiopia, quoted in Crivello and van der Gaag, 2016, p 17)

We remained ignorant and we don’t want our children also like that. We lived our lives eating porridge and gathering firewood. Now the times have changed. … We are getting them educated so that they will have decent and good life.

(Preethi’s mother, tribal area, United Andhra Pradesh; interview transcript)

For the Older Cohort girls, remaining in school is associated with later transitions to marriage, cohabitation and childbearing, reflecting global trends (UNICEF, 2018). For example, Latha’s mother got married three years after she reached menarche, whereas Latha had reached 20 before she married. Her mother reflected that girls these days have a – somewhat – greater say about marriage.

We could not oppose what elders used to say, we had to obey them. We could not tell them ‘I will not get married.’ Nowadays they ask the girl whether they like the boy or not.

(Interview transcript)

Latha works hard in her in-laws’ house but gets along well with her husband. She says: ‘I am lucky to have a husband I like’ (interview transcript). Her husband and brother-in-law make her laugh, and her sister-in-law helps her with housework. Her mother-in-law ‘won’t direct [me] to do [my work] this way or that way … she only says “Do it as you like”’ (interview transcript). By 2016, aged 22, Latha had one daughter and was pregnant for a second time.

In Ethiopia, some of the mothers and grandmothers of Young Lives children who themselves suffered by marrying too young have played a part in changing attitudes and practices towards girls’ education and marriage. Haftey, an orphan, was raised by her grandmother. The grandmother grew up in a village without a school and her parents (p.34) arranged for her to marry when she was aged just nine. The marriage lasted for only a short time. The grandmother explained that this was because she was too young to be married. When asked ‘Would you have liked to have gone to school?’, she replied: ‘Who knows? I didn’t have any idea. … School was not known at that time. …’ She was remarried when she was in her mid-teens. This was a happier marriage and the couple had nine children. But, tragically, seven of the children died while still quite young – including Haftey’s mother. The grandmother attributed her children’s deaths to her poverty and lack of experience, and to congested birth spacing, due to the absence of reproductive health facilities in her community. The distressing experience of losing so many children led her to oppose early marriage and to become an auxiliary health worker focused on promoting birth control use. Her aim was to ensure that Haftey would have a far happier life: ‘I wish her to have a better life than mine because I am a poor woman and have many problems’ (interview transcript). She saw schooling as crucial to achieving this goal, as it would both delay the girl’s marriage and prepare her for a good job: ‘I expect her to have a better life because she will be educated and she will have a job… I sent her to school because I want her to have a better life…’ (interview transcript). ‘Now, there is smartness. … Of course they are smart, we are happy that our children are going to school’ (interview transcript).

Rural children fall behind their urban peers

The Young Lives sample in each study country was selected randomly from 20 communities spread across a mix of urban and rural areas. Young Lives has found important differences between children living in different communities, and it is apparent that the benefits of national economic growth and development in the four countries have been unequally shared between urban and rural populations. Many Young Lives households remain vulnerable to food insecurity and to shocks – unexpected economic, environmental or family events, such as drought or death, which have adverse consequences for individuals and households. While the percentage of Young Lives households in Ethiopia reporting food insecurity in the previous year fell from 38% to 28% between 2009 and 2016, a significant proportion of the poorest households continue to face food insecurity, in that country and also in Vietnam (Benny et al, 2018). In three countries, reporting of adverse impacts of economic shocks was especially evident in 2009, and was driven largely by increased food and input prices associated with the global financial crisis (Dornan, 2010). As Figure 3.2 shows, household (p.35)

Growing up in a time of extraordinary change

Figure 3.2: Percentage of households reporting adverse impacts from economic shocks, 2016

exposure to economic shocks remained high in 2016 for two countries even during periods of economic growth. Economic shocks often affect urban households more than they do rural households because urban populations cannot grow their own produce and have to purchase everything they need; the adverse impact is particularly evident in Ethiopia.

Urban communities are typically better off than rural communities and urban households enjoy better service access, housing quality and consumer durables. This is illustrated by Figures 3.3 and 3.4, which track changes in material conditions in Ethiopia and Vietnam by averaging the wealth level across the households in each community in the years 2002 and 2016 (survey rounds 1 and 5). Though all communities saw gains during this period, there were very large differences in average wealth levels between them. With only a couple of exceptions, the ranking remained constant over time. The circumstances facing children in the different communities are very dissimilar: from the nature of work, to access to services and transport and levels of exposure to extreme weather conditions such as drought or floods.

The poorest Ethiopian site is Weyn, a rural community in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region in the south west of the country. Weyn is prone to serious environmental hazards, including drought. The least poor site is Menderin, a slum community (p.36)

Growing up in a time of extraordinary change

Figure 3.3: Average wealth levels in communities, 2002 and 2016: Ethiopia

Note: The figure includes all Young Lives households (Younger and Older Cohorts) providing information at each round.

in the capital, Addis Ababa, which nevertheless faces a range of problems, such as poor physical safety and low-quality services.

The poorest Vietnamese community, Lang Hoi, is in one of the northern hilly provinces bordering China where remoteness makes transport and trading difficult. A high proportion of the population of Lang Hoi comprises minority ethnic groups that have traditionally been economically and socially disadvantaged. By contrast, the least poor site, Nhan Trung, is part of Da Nang, a large and prosperous port city that depends on trade and has good services and transport links. The apparently lower economic growth among sites with higher average wealth levels (which tended to be urban) is partly due to the nature of the wealth index which specifies the services, housing conditions and consumer durables to which the respondent may or may not have access. Hence these, urban households already had access to the majority of the items assessed by the index in the first survey round, so it was unlikely for them to experience further gains in subsequent rounds. (p.37)

Growing up in a time of extraordinary change

Figure 3.4: Average wealth levels in communities, 2002 and 2016: Vietnam

Note: The figure includes all Young Lives households (Younger and Older Cohorts) providing information at each round.

Despite rapid improvements in services across all four countries, with overall coverage in 2016 consistently higher than in 2002, service access is another aspect of life in which rural communities lag behind urban communities, as illustrated by Figure 3.5.

There are many other ways in which rural children are more disadvantaged than their urban peers. Rural populations experience more risk than urban populations, for example through more frequent exposure to extreme weather events such as drought, which can be a major cause of livelihood insecurity. Figure 3.6 shows that rural households are consistently more likely to report environmental shocks than urban ones throughout the 10 years from 2006 to 2016, even though national economies were growing during this period.

Poorer rural households are particularly susceptible to such shocks, since they often depend on rain-fed agriculture and lack the kind of technology and equipment that may help them adapt. Moreover, poor families may not be able to access loans or credit from financial institutions, or from relatives, neighbours or friends, who may be (p.38)

Growing up in a time of extraordinary change

Figure 3.5: Rural sanitation and drinking water coverage for Younger Cohort households, 2002 and 2016 (%)

Note: Country-specific definitions in basic sanitation and clean drinking water mean that this data is not comparable across countries.


Growing up in a time of extraordinary change

Figure 3.6: Percentage of households reporting adverse impacts from environmental shocks, 2005/06-16

Note: The figure includes all Young Lives households (Younger and Older Cohorts) providing information at each round.

exposed to the same threats. One Young Lives mother living in a drought prone area in the Tigray region of Ethiopia described stark choices, although at least she had been able to access some government support:

Now due to the drought we are thinking to sell the cattle to use it for our consumption and send our children to school. We are not yet sure whether we will have enough to survive from the [Productive] Safety Net [Programme] and other income activities and if the income is not enough we will borrow from the Government.

(Quoted in Ogando Portela and Pells, 2015a, p 77)

In contrast, a Scheduled Tribe boy from United Andhra Pradesh described the impact of heavy rains: ‘We faced some problems, they happened this year. There were floods and all the fields were inundated. Heavy rains damaged the crops and everyone’s farmland was badly affected’ (quoted in Young Lives, 2012, p 1). He explained that, as a consequence, ‘We were forced to buy rice and other things since then from outside. … Whatever little money we earned was spent on buying rice’ (quoted in Young Lives, 2012, p 12).

(p.40) Children exposed to extreme weather events in early childhood are likely to be shorter than their peers and to suffer from illnesses such as diarrhoea, which affects their nutrient absorption, and may curtail growth (Georgiadis, 2016). Children may also be affected through threats to their mothers’ wellbeing, health and nutrition. For example, children born to mothers who were exposed to the 1984 famine in Ethiopia were found to be shorter and behind in their schooling compared with those whose mothers were not affected (Tafere, 2016).

The urban–rural gap is also reflected in perceived life opportunities, as revealed in intentions to migrate. In rural areas throughout the four countries there is a widespread aspiration for children to move to the city, with the expectation that they will earn more, have an easier life and remit income back to their families. This dream is shared by boys, girls, mothers, fathers and grandparents alike. Eva, from a rural community in Peru, is among many Young Lives children who have resolved to move to the city. Eva helped her parents out on their farm, but found the work tiring, dirty and unpleasant. She complained that she regularly felt ‘shattered’ at the end of the day and declared, ‘I am not going to be a peasant’ (quoted in Boyden, 2013, p 8). She was determined to seek out a better life by moving to Lima, and her plan was to train to be a nurse. Schooling is often the main vehicle through which children migrate from rural areas, as rural families commonly support the transition of adolescents to urban secondary schools in the search for better quality or more prestigious education (see Chapter Six). Nicolas also lives in rural Peru. The death of his father had an enormous impact on the family. His mother was convinced that his route out of poverty meant finishing secondary school, going to university in the city and becoming a ‘professional’. His two elder sisters were already living in Lima and sent money for Nicolas’s education. His mother stated: ‘[I] always dream … that the city isn’t like here; here it’s always suffering. … I tell him to “study son, it’s for you, what’s of the chacra (fields) stays chacra, your studies, no one can take them away”’ (quoted in Crivello and Boyden, 2011, p 15).

Children in urban areas still face many risks

Although families and children living in towns and cities are generally better off than their rural counterparts, and despite the aspirations of rural populations to migrate to the city, Young Lives children and caregivers are clear that urban slum dwelling carries its own problems. Lack of safety, uncollected rubbish, poor hygiene and sanitation, and (p.41) low levels of social trust are mentioned regularly. Amira and Miki are growing up in Addis Ababa, in sites with the highest wealth level in the Ethiopian sample. Even so, their home is very cramped. Miki’s grandmother, his caregiver, said:

We are living here because we do not have any other option. Our house is very small. We do all things here. We cook here, we eat here, we sleep here and all of our belongings are here.

(Quoted in Pankhurst and Tiumelissan, 2013, p 17).

Amira’s mother complained about having to rely on public toilets and the difficulties this presented for children:

It is very sad to talk about our toilet. There is no toilet in the compound and near our house, so we are supposed to walk 3–5 minutes and pay 25 cents to use one. This might be tolerable for adults, but it is very difficult for children, so we are using a bedpan for them. The toilet is shared by many people.

(Quoted in Pankhurst and Tiumelissan, 2013, p 12)

In Peru, Carmen expressed frustration at adults’ failure to appreciate the environment:

I would like [my locality] to be more green, and cleaner as well. People don’t have awareness. They throw things over there in the gutter, thinking it’s the rubbish bin. They throw stuff there. It makes me angry. Once, a lady … I think it was orange juice, she threw the bag into the gutter. I didn’t say anything, but I think that if I had complained, I would have said ‘What’s the matter with you? Why are you throwing that there, if that is not for rubbish?’

(Quoted in Young Lives, 2012, p 8)

Also in Peru, Luz explained that the dirty and ‘ugly’ streets in her town, San Roman, made her feel bad (Young Lives, 2012) and Fabian complained that when the waste collection in his neighbourhood in Lima was suspended for six months the area ‘looked bad’.

Lack of personal safety in urban areas due to a felt or real threat of violence and crime is a critical concern for many. Luz said:

Well, [it’s] not so good. … The noise and a bit. … Well, the thieves frighten me. … Whatever time of day, they can (p.42) come in. When you’re not home, they can come inside and take everything, leaving your house practically empty.

(Quoted in Young Lives, 2012, p 8)

Equally, Susan, in Lima, declared:

I prefer to go to school in the morning, because in the afternoons it is more dangerous – when I come back it is darker. I mean it is dangerous – in the streets there is always danger – but in the morning it is not so dangerous. It is less likely that something happens to you [in the morning], but in the streets at night, there are more adult people, drunken people. I don’t know, it is more dangerous.

(Quoted in Pells, 2011b, p 25)

Concerns about the absence of secure tenure is also a significant worry for many. For example, residents of Bertukan in Addis Ababa face eviction and relocation as part of the government’s development plans (Pankhurst and Tiumelissan, 2013). Adjacent areas have been demolished and they have been told that they too will soon have to move. Relocated families are generally rehoused, although many have found that their new accommodation is far from sources of livelihood, family and friends, and sometimes also far from key services like schools.

Some children face multiple hazards, with cumulative adverse effects

Household economic position and access to infrastructure and services are not simply a matter of where families live, but also relate closely to social status. Social inequalities are unique in each context, but minority social status, whether due to language, religious, caste or ethnic differences, tends to be linked to circumstances that undermine children’s outcomes everywhere. In some of the circumstances investigated by Young Lives, there has been upwards convergence: for example, enrolment gaps between different groups tend to have narrowed as primary school access has become near-universal. Similarly, across Peru, some inequalities (such as in access to sanitation and electricity) have narrowed as these services have expanded. However, it is important to note that the focus on access can mask wide variations in quality and the outcomes achieved for children and that minority communities tend to have poorer facilities and services.

(p.43) While minority ethnic children often fall behind in Vietnam, in India it is girls and young people from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes who are particularly disadvantaged. Marginalised groups are more likely to live in rural areas with greater prevalence of environmental shocks and poorer services and they are generally among the most deprived in these contexts. In rural areas of United Andhra Pradesh, access to sanitation has remained stubbornly low – just 31% of rural households have a flush toilet, septic tank or pit latrine – but access among rural Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe households is lower still.

Shocks are interrelated: households experiencing poverty are more likely to report economic and environmental shocks, service shortfalls, bereavement and/or family illness, and are also more likely to have reported shocks in previous survey rounds. Illness may generate huge care demands, while the labour contribution of the person who is sick must be replaced. Kassaye’s mother, in rural Ethiopia, highlighted how her family had been hit by multiple catastrophes. When her husband broke his leg, he was unable to work for six months during the sowing season, when the family’s labour needs were high. The harvest also failed, so they went hungry (Pells, 2011a). Medical treatment is often extremely expensive, as is transport to and from medical facilities. The most consistent complaints about these costs came from United Andhra Pradesh. One father described the implications of several members of his family falling ill at the same time:

In a month if anyone is affected [in this case by malaria and typhoid], it passes to all the others in the family. When the first one is being treated with medical care and everything and he is almost back to normal, another child becomes affected by the same disease, and then my wife, it is like that. The money we got as income is all spent on medical care.

(Quoted in Pells, 2011a, p 20)

Similarly, Ravi, who is from a Scheduled Caste and lives in a rural community, explained that his mother suffered from stomach pains, headaches and the chikungunya virus. She consulted private doctors, believing them to be more conscientious, so his family had to take out loans to pay the medical bills, the debt reaching a full 28,000 rupees. Repayment was dependent on a good harvest and Ravi’s work in a local town (Pells, 2011a). Govindh’s mother also fell ill and her medical costs reached 10,000 rupees. The harvest failed two years running and Govindh’s family was only able to cope by borrowing money from his uncle and his grandmother’s village (Pells and Woodhead, 2014).

(p.44) Not all change is perceived as improving children’s wellbeing

In a time of dramatic economic and socio-cultural change, there may be significant transformations also in social norms and values, leading sometimes to considerable anxiety and even conflict within families over how best to raise children. In Vietnam, caregivers expressed concerns about the influence of modern attitudes and practices on the young, particularly the potential of their being ‘corrupted’ by ‘social evils’ such as pornography, drugs, early sexual activity, divorce, family breakdown and alcoholism (Zharkevich et al, 2016, p 9). While there are obvious benefits, it is striking that for caregivers – in Vietnam particularly – digital technology, especially mobile telephones and the internet, is one of the most worrying aspects of modern life. The internet was sometimes described as a ‘vice’. One mother in Da Nang said: ‘… the Internet … has become prevalent in the last three or four years.… The consequences of the Internet are very serious. At school, students often fight with teachers’ (interview transcript). Another mother suggested that the influence of the internet is undermining parents’ abilities to control their children: ‘We can’t control the children. Sometimes we are too busy doing businesses and can’t follow them all the time. Although I know this, I can’t do anything to prevent them’ (interview transcript). Another said:

Around here there are a lot of social problems/evils. In many cases, students drop out [of] lessons at the school to play games online in the Internet cafes nearby the school. Like in Viet – Korea school, every time I go to workplace I see during class time, but there are still many students, sitting in the Internet café playing games. So I am afraid that my son will be in the same situation.

(Interview transcript)

Some caregivers fear that their children are not being taught basic skills properly due to the use of the Internet in schools. In Lima, Peru, Alejandro’s mother said:

Now there aren’t good teachers … because now everything is Internet. Before there were better teachers. … The teachers that used to teach us before, made us do homework that we had to do with our own hands.

(Interview transcript; emphasis added)

(p.45) Caregivers have concerns about other aspects of modern life that they perceive to be increasingly outside their control. Latha’s brother eloped with a girl and her mother was worried about Latha having too much freedom, with the risk that this would undermine the family’s reputation: ‘If she studies here and there, goes to towns, friendships are formed [with boys]. That may happen. So, we stopped’ (quoted in Pells, 2011b, p 8). At age 15, Latha was no longer enrolled in school, but instead working in the fields, and being taught domestic skills in readiness for marriage. Latha did have a say in her marriage and although involving young people in such important decisions may be seen as a positive development, her mother expressed a concern that nowadays young people take little account of their elders: ‘If we tell them one thing, they do the other thing. Now it is not like our days, they don’t listen to elders. They say “We cannot live the same way as you”’ (interview transcript).

Some of the recent changes in norms in relation to the young have arisen through government policies aimed at changing childrearing practice to better protect children. On occasion, efforts to bring about social change through policy and legal measures have had unintended adverse consequences. This highlights the importance of understanding the logic underlying social values and practices. For example, the Ethiopian government has taken a strong stand against early marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and imposes fines and imprisonment for infractions. Many Young Lives caregivers recognise the advantages for girls of staying in school longer and marrying later, and many understand that FGM/C poses potential health risks. But raising the legal age of marriage and banning FGM/C have caused considerable apprehension and intra-familial conflict. Ethiopia is a patriarchal society and many believe that FGM/C ensures a girl’s marriageability by enhancing her femininity (Boyden, 2012). Marriage, in turn, is considered to protect girls from social and economic risks in a context of poverty and vulnerability (Pankhurst, 2014). Thus, many view both FGM/C and early marriage as a necessary part of a girl’s transition to adulthood.

Caregivers perceive promiscuity, elopements among teenagers and abductions of girls to have risen sharply as a consequence of delaying marriage, and associate these practices with an increase in rape, illegitimacy, unsafe abortions, abandonment of women and their offspring, and higher rates of sexually transmitted infections in the young. All of their concerns are intensified by the lack of reproductive health facilities and limited support for young unmarried mothers with children. When FGM/C was banned, caregivers often felt it imperative (p.46) to comply with the law. But some girls sought to conduct their own secret operations, wishing to ensure they would be marriageable, and these procedures were often more dangerous due to their clandestine nature. Adults expressed deep concern about girls organising their own circumcisions. A father from Oromia explained:

Girls are conducting not only illegal circumcision, but they are also violating the traditional norms by carrying out circumcision at any time and under any circumstance. Most of the time circumcision [today] is conducted during the night time. This kind of secret practice is totally dangerous for the life of the girls.

(Quoted in Boyden, 2012, p 1118)

It is perhaps unsurprising that rapid social change can be a cause of disquiet and contestation among parents and young people regarding the best way to secure a safe transition to adulthood. In some cases, young people resisting decisions made by adults can cause them significant social and physical risk. The concerns coexist, though, with great optimism for the generational changes that more schooling will produce. This is not to suggest that such perceptions are necessarily realities, nor that the past was less risky. The presence of preventable deaths from early marriage and childbirth suggest it was not. But what this does indicate is that change can be unsettling, and that policy-makers and law makers have a responsibility to understand the social, economic and other forces sustaining particular practices. Understanding such factors is part of expanding effective policies while minimising the harm that such policies sometimes unintentionally cause.


During the first two decades of the millennium, most Young Lives children and their families experienced significant changes in their living circumstances. The bioecological life course model introduced in Chapter Two set out how society and policy changes frames children’s development; this chapter has discussed some of the channels through which this happens. There have been many positive developments, as poverty levels and stunting rates have declined, and infrastructure and service access improved. Intergenerational progress has also been observed, with many children experiencing better health and more education than the previous generation. Gender inequalities in access to education have decreased and more young women are able to delay (p.47) marriage and parenthood. And new technologies have brought many benefits, expanding children’s horizons.

However, significant social and economic disparities persist, and children in rural areas and from minority groups continue to face disadvantages across many aspects of their lives. Similarly, social and economic change has not always been comfortable for all. Urban living offers many advantages, but children’s wellbeing is not automatically improved. Migration to urban areas may pose new risks for children, exposing them to violence and loss of social trust. Many adults worry that new influences, such as the internet and policy interventions, may threaten the safety of children. Such concerns are understandable and indicate how parents can feel disempowered by change. The evidence also highlights the policy challenge of how best to bring an end to practices that may be harmful to children without also causing resistance and social disruption. Careful attention needs to be paid to how communities view practices considered damaging by policy-makers. Young Lives evidence highlights the importance of engaging with communities as part of the change process, and suggests that the law alone is unlikely to shift practices that are deeply rooted and may be reproduced by poverty and economic risk.


(1) Data for fathers were not always collected and so these are restricted to mothers and daughters. (p.48)