It is not uncommon to see queues of young Ethiopian women boarding planes at Addis Ababa airport on their way to seek work in Arab countries.
Further South on the African continent, young Malawian men travel by trucks towards greener pastures in South Africa.
These young people share a common goal. They’re looking for a better future elsewhere, whether it is outside their village or their country.
We spoke to young people and their parents in the Ethiopia’s Amhara region, Machinga, Mangochi and Nkhata Bay districts in Malawi and Sikasso and Segou in Mali about their understanding of their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Little did we expect that migration plays such a central role in shaping their choices. Young people and their families shed light on why young people are choosing to migrate and how this movement affects child marriage.
Migration can give women and girls more choice on who and when to marry
“She has to pay back the reputation of her parents through migrating and generate income if she is not married.” Young male, 16 years, Amhara region, Ethiopia
If a young woman drops out of school or fails her grade 10 exams in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, she faces two options. Her first option is to get married. But if she refuses to marry, there is an expectation that she finds work, which often requires migrating to another country. Joblessness is a major concern for young Amhara women who have limited livelihood options.
Parents strongly encourage their daughters to migrate for the economic benefits when they send income home to the family. In many cases, young women themselves aspire to migrate, and peers who have succeeded are considered role models.
Migration can also free young women from both family expectations and the pressure to get married.
Women and girls who are earning their own income are more desirable to young men, who often look for partners with money and the ability to start small businesses. Earning income allows women to have independent funds so they can marry with more choice.
In contrast, other research has found that women who return from the Middle East are perceived as being sexually active and hence are not considered suitable marriage partners.
Although there are a number of perceived benefits, migration can be illegal and unsafe; research has found that migrant girls face sexual exploitation from their employers and the agents/brokers that help them migrate. It is also a threat to girls’ education. While dropping out of school can be a trigger to migrate, it can also be a consequence of migration.
For many, the benefits are worth the risk.
Migration can help girls to delay marriage and focus on personal growth
“Migration can render certain girls more mature. They learn a lot of small business skills. On their return, if they apply their knowledge in commerce, they can have a little bit of money.” Mother, Sikasso, Mali
For girls in Mali, migration can offer an opportunity for personal growth.
Many girls from rural Mali travel to the outskirts of larger towns and cities, looking for employment or to prepare a trousseau (possessions such as clothing and linens that a bride assembles for her marriage). This enables girls to gain skills before marriage and to delay marriage by ‘hiding out’ in the city.
Migration of young men can shake up the marriage market
“ … When you go to Johannesburg and come back, girls want to marry you right away… the parents do not hesitate giving away their daughter.” Young male, 20-24 years, Machinga, Malawi
The causes of migration in Malawi are similar to Ethiopia and Mali but young men make up the majority of those on the move. Most young men head to South Africa, or to bigger towns in Malawi. This shakes up the marriage market. As in Ethiopia and Mali, these young people are seen as attractive partners. Parents persuade their daughters to find suitors who work or have worked in South Africa as they are believed to bring economic benefits to the family.
These young men often marry when they visit home and their wives stay behind – sometimes with their child. As one of our interviewees put it: these are ‘phone marriages’. Although many marriages come after migration, these stories are a little more complex. In some cases, young women and girls are pregnant before their partners go to South Africa.
Understanding migration can help to prevent child marriage
Although young people make their own choice to migrate, these choices are shaped by their circumstances.
Economic factors are drivers, but migration is also a coping strategy for young women to delay marriage in Ethiopia and Mali. In Malawi, it is shaping new forms of relationships, often unequal, between young people.
These findings have direct implications for programming. A two-pronged approach is required in Ethiopia where local opportunities need to be created. Secondary education needs to be funded and livelihood options expanded. Those migrating also need to be protected from exploitation. ODI’s report ‘Rethinking girls on the move’ dives deeper into violence faced by young women on their journey, and what is needed to combat this.
For young men in Malawi, a rejuvenation of the local economy is needed, by strengthening small-scale private enterprises. A better economy will also empower young women who would be able to support their families independently without the need to find a partner for financial upkeep.
Finally, a dialogue with parents is crucial to change attitudes. Rethinking what it means to be a young person can transform the way we value their contributions and respect their choices.
We must ensure that young people have the knowledge and skills to make informed choices as they transition to adulthood before they board a plane or truck.