Give a goat, save a girl from marriage

Twelve-year-old Suria, a participant in the DFID-funded Adolescent Girls Empowerment Program – led by Population Council – in Zambia.

Want an effective way to prevent child marriages? Give families goats. Or chickens.

New research from high-risk areas of Ethiopia and Tanzania show that giving families livestock helped reduce the chance that girls will be married off before turning 18 years old. The findings, presented this week by Population Council, add to a growing evidence base for the effectiveness of giving families money or goods to improve their lives.

“There is something one can do in a relatively short period of time to delay the age of marriage in child marriage hotspots,” said Annabel Erulkar, Population Council senior associate, Ethiopia country director, and lead researcher on this study, in a phone interview with Humanosphere. “The fact that we were able to implement some of these programs in such challenging places is promising.”

Giving livestock was not the only successful intervention. They evaluated three strategies in the two East African countries. Interventions included community conversations about the dangers of child marriage, education support including school supplies and uniforms, and the provision of livestock. A final strategy offered a combination of the three.

The findings from the two countries show that one size does not fit all. However, the strength of giving livestock in both countries may show a way to address the problem in other countries.

Ethiopian girls between the ages of 12 and 14 who were provided school support were 94 percent less likely to be married as compared to others. Girls between the ages of 15 and 17 given livestock were about half as likely to be married.

For Tanzania, giving girls between 15 and 17 a goat reduced early marriage by two-thirds. But none of the individual interventions was able to affect child marriage among younger girls in a significant way. The combination of all three did show some success for younger and older girls, but the goats are the standout.

“Child marriage is not an intractable tradition. When families and communities recognize the harms of child marriage, and have economic alternatives, they will delay the age at which their daughters get married,” said Erulkar, in a news release. “Because we rigorously gathered and monitored the cost of these interventions, we know more than ever about the cost – and the affordability – of intervening in girls’ lives in ways that will delay the age at which they marry.”

Understanding the efficacy of the interventions relative to their cost was one of the driving forces behind the research. The findings show that it costs less than $20 to prevent an Ethiopian girl from getting married before she turns 15 years old. It is particularly important in places that are harder to reach, like where the study was conducted.

Costs in Ethiopia
  • School supplies cost $17 per girl per year
  • Community conversations cost $30 per girl per year
  • Conditional economic incentives, 2 chickens, cost $32 per girl per year
  • The full model, providing all three interventions, cost $44 per girl per year
Costs in Tanzania
  • Community conversations cost $11 per girl per year
  • School supplies cost $22 per girl per year
  • Conditional economic incentives, one goat, cost $107 per girl per year
  • The full model, providing all three interventions, cost $117 per girl per year

“These are programs implemented in very resource-poor areas, with very little government support,” Erulkar said. “It might accelerate progress in a place like Ethiopia, where things are already changing.”

The impact of the programs on older girls is the greatest concern. Erulkar explained that child marriage among girls younger than 14 occurs far less often than for girls of 16 or 17. Given the low likelihood, it is more costly to spend money on averting marriages among young girls.

And that is where the livestock become important. Giving families two chickens (Ethiopia) and one goat (Tanzania) effectively reduced marriage rates among older girls. It is in line with other studies that show that giving families money or livestock can improve their lives. It reduces the need for income through marriage dowries and elsewhere.

Population Council is also studying the programs in Burkina Faso to further strengthen its findings. Erulkar expressed optimism that these findings prove that there is a way to help countries reduce child marriages rates, but said that further research can help hone in on what works best.

“It is critical that we take some of these approaches that have been rigorously evaluated and use them to benefit as many girls as possible,” she said.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.