School Dropout, Child Marriage & Early Pregnancy
What’s the relationship between school dropout, child marriage, and early pregnancy? Do girls drop out of school because of early marriage or pregnancy? Or is it the reverse? My guest today is Erin Murphy-Graham who has researched these questions extensively in Honduras. She focuses on the agency of girls in their adolescence and the disconnect between schooling and their futures.
Erin Murphy-Graham is an Associate Adjunct Professor at the Graduate School of Education, UC Berkeley. She’s recently published with Alison Cohen and Diana Pacheco-Montoya a new article in the Comparative Education Review entitled: School dropout, child marriage and early pregnancy among adolescent girls in rural Honduras.
Citation: Murphy-Graham, Erin, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 225, podcast audio, December 14, 2020. https://freshedpodcast.com/murphy-graham/
Will Brehm 1:12
Erin Murphy-Graham, welcome to FreshEd.
Erin Murphy-Graham 1:14
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here, Will.
Will Brehm 1:16
So, can you just tell me a little bit about how prevalent child marriage is around the world today?
Erin Murphy-Graham 1:21
Sure. So, estimates suggest that each year 12 million girls are married before the age of 18. So, this means that globally today, there are roughly 650 million women who were married before the age of 18. And I should say that in the work on child marriage, and in the field of on advocacy, and policymaking, and research, child marriage is a term that’s used to refer to any formal or informal union before the age of 18, for both girls and boys. So, we call them child marriages, but, in some cases, they are informal unions.
Will Brehm 2:04
Right. And are there particular areas in the world where child marriage, or child informal unions, are more prevalent than others?
Erin Murphy-Graham 2:15
That’s a great question. So, child marriage is a global phenomenon. It happens in almost every country of the world. But yes, there are definitely regions and countries where it is more prevalent. But I think what’s so interesting about child marriage is because it’s rooted in gender inequality. So, you’ll see that it happens in any society where girls and women are considered inferior. But often, where it is more prevalent, we also have higher rates of poverty, we have higher rates of educational inequality, and less access to education. And then also in countries that have cultural norms and cultural practices that support, or endorse, or even just tolerate really early marriage. And then also regions of the world where there are high levels of insecurity and violence. So, it exists worldwide, but it’s countries and regions with those kinds of characteristics where we see even higher rates.
Will Brehm 3:16
I would imagine since it happens worldwide, that there must be different definitions of what a child is. I mean, there’s a lot of emphasis on the teen years and younger, but that just seems a bit arbitrary, perhaps, you know. So, I guess, how do different notions and definitions of what it means to be a child sort of impact how we think about child marriage?
Erin Murphy-Graham 3:35
That’s a great question as well. So, child marriage is used as a term, I think, really to gain global awareness of the issue. It’s a very attention-grabbing term. But it’s true that technically, many of the individuals who enter into unions before the age of 18 would be considered adolescence. So, if we think of early childhood from birth to age six or seven, and then the middle years of childhood are usually from six or seven to 11. And then early adolescence is 12 to 14, and then adolescent is 15 to 24. Those are the sort of general age ranges that international organizations have come to agree upon. Most individuals who are entering into these marriages would be considered either early adolescence or adolescence. They are not -technically speaking- children. But I think what’s important is that we’re also guided by the Convention for International Rights of the Child. And in that case, it’s basically things that are guaranteed to individuals who don’t have independent legal status. So, anyone under the age of 18 is not considered an adult. And therefore, it’s really adults’ responsibility, those who are over the age of 18, to help to protect the rights of those who are under the age of 18. And that’s where I think advocacy work has kind of grasped on to the notion of the child because it really evokes this notion that it’s our responsibility to protect those who are technically don’t have independent legal status.
Will Brehm 5:03
So, in some cases, how young are girls getting married?
Erin Murphy-Graham 5:07
Yeah. So, it does range. You know, you hear sort of anecdotal stories, right, where children will get married as young as age nine. Sometimes it correlates with when they have their first periods. But I think when you look at Demographic Health Studies, the DHS statistics, which are one of the main sources that we use globally to look at this, we see that roughly, one of the ages that’s the most common where this phenomenon is occurring is between 15 and 19 years of age. So, it happens earlier, but definitely, I think some of the most risky ages for the practice are 14, 15 years old. And you know, all these statistics exist, and you can look. There is a wonderful website called ‘Girls Not Brides,’ which is a sort of international research and advocacy network around the issue of child marriage. And there is a lot of information and statistics around what the specific ages are.
Will Brehm 6:08
So, why is it risky for children within that age range between 15 and 19, as you said?
Erin Murphy-Graham 6:14
So, that’s one of the things we’ve thought about quite a bit in the research because I think, especially with this idea that: what is a child? And is 17 old enough to get married? Is 16 old enough to get married? And I think that one of the reasons why it’s very straightforward to say that this is problematic practice is because, until quite recently, the leading cause of death amongst adolescent girls in these 15 to 19 age ranges was actually childbearing. So, because the body is not physically ready, is not physically mature to actually have a child pass through the birth canal, you see high rates of maternal mortality for adolescent pregnancies. And so, part of the reason why there is an effort to end child marriage is because early childbirth is so problematic and so dangerous. So, I’ve often questioned this idea well, okay, so let’s imagine that a girl at age 14 or 15 gets married, but you can prevent pregnancy, then what’s the problem, right? Is the problem pregnancy, or is the problem union? And so, what research suggests is that early marriages exacerbate the problems of marriage in general. This is actually work that’s come out of a wonderful NGO called Nirantar Trust in India. They point out, I think, quite brilliantly that the problems of early marriage are that in societies where marriages are often unequal, where women don’t have equal voice, where women, often their mobility is restricted, where they may have very tight constraints on any kind of decision making or participation outside of the household. All of those issues of inequality, and male domination, and oftentimes violence, those are much worse in instances where girls are quite young. So, what we see with these early marriages is that there’s higher rates of domestic violence, there’s higher rates of issues related to girls not being able to continue their schooling. That’s a huge issue. We see that once girls are in unions, they no longer continue their studies. And that oftentimes they just have to live a very secluded life where they’re unable to socialize with others their age, they have very heavy domestic responsibilities in terms of household chores. And in some ways, they’re adolescents, and their childhood comes to an end. They’re asked to take on adult roles when they’re still quite young, and so they’re very vulnerable.
Will Brehm 8:44
And is there typically a large age gap?
Erin Murphy-Graham 8:48
Yes, that’s another great question. So, that also varies. In the world, we see that yes, there is typically an age gap. But that gap is not the same across different countries. So, in Latin America, where I do this work, we see a gap, but it’s not a huge gap. It’s usually between four to five years.
Will Brehm 9:09
So, like the girl would be potentially 15-16, and then the man would be about 20?
Erin Murphy-Graham 9:17
That’s right, about 20.
Will Brehm 9:19
That seems quite young as well.
Erin Murphy-Graham 9:20
Yes, yes. And so often, what you’ll see is that it’s an age gap, but not one that is too unsettling in some ways, in this context, at least of Latin America. The anecdotes of men who are much, much older that I think sometimes get media attention, you know, sometimes there’s a man who’s 60 or 70 years old who has a teenage bride. That’s not really what we saw in the research. We saw that much more common was adolescence dating, slightly older adolescents, or involved in relationships with adolescents who were older than they were, but not in a way that was particularly noteworthy.
Will Brehm 9:58
And so, in that research where you’ve been studying this phenomenon, why are relatively young men and young girls getting married or forming unions?
Erin Murphy-Graham 10:09
So, this is the question that we set out to answer as well. I have been doing research in Honduras and in Latin America for approximately 20 years. And when I began this work, I began with a keen interest in trying to better understand how education could transform gender norms. So, looking at when adolescents are able to participate in educational settings, does this change the way that they think about gender, in what ways is education empowering? And I also have this keen interest in trying to understand how we can improve the quality of secondary education, particularly in developing countries settings. And so, I was involved in some work on this very interesting and innovative secondary education program called SAT, which stands for Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial. And that program is an interesting topic in and of itself, which I won’t go into too much detail about today. But I raise it because it had given me exposure to individuals who are roughly in grades 7 through grade 12, that’s the US equivalent. And so, it’s what we think of as lower and upper secondary school. And I’ve been doing this work, and one of the goals of the work was to try to follow a cohort of youth longitudinally as they graduated from primary school and continued on through secondary school. And in doing that work, we followed students, you know, in this seventh-grade time period, eighth grade time period, and when we looked at the data, we were actually shocked to see that roughly 10% of girls, these are in rural communities exclusively, but that 10% of girls had dropped out because they’d gotten married. And I was actually really surprised. I thought I knew something about this region, and I wasn’t expecting to find such high rates of child marriage. And so, it really caused me as a scholar and as a researcher to try to answer this question, why is this happening? And what was so interesting was that I found that we knew a lot about the statistics. So, we knew that this was happening, but we didn’t know why. And so together in an earlier paper, I worked with purely a qualitative sample, where we went to the communities where we were conducting research, identified individuals who had formed early unions, and conducted in-depth interviews with them and in-depth interviews with people in their families. And what we found was that girls made this decision in the context of very limited choices. So, because they lived in environments where they felt that their future opportunities were somewhat restricted, they did not see themselves having the opportunity to say go to the university because they had really scarce family resources. They also sometimes found school was just not that interesting but having a boyfriend was interesting. So, what this research has really done for me is made me better understand that in doing work on adolescents, you have to bring in an adolescent development lens and understand that there are certain things that are happening during adolescence. One of which is this desire for exploring one’s sexuality, for forming intimate relationships, for better understanding what does it mean to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, that’s a totally normal and healthy part of adolescence. And in the culture of rural Honduras, parents really wanted to restrict their girls and their mobility and were afraid that if their children got into a romantic relationship that they would drop out of school. And so, it was this really interesting dynamic where girls were exercising agency, but that agency was somewhat constrained. And it was that early qualitative study that allowed us to better explain that you know, it was romantic relationships that were driving this, it was the adolescent tendency to want to act in ways that were in opposition to one’s parents, and they wanted independent. It was this early qualitative work that made us realize we need to do this with a much larger quantitative sample. And understand if the trends that we were seeing in the qualitative work were also present in, you know, a cohort where we could look at some of the correlations between pregnancy marriage and school decisions. And that’s in some ways what led to this work.
Will Brehm 14:35
So, I mean, it’s an amazing study because you’ve looked at a large group of girls over eight years, if I’m correct. And I mean, so, you know, what did you find? Do girls drop out of school because of early marriages? Or are they dropping out and then getting married? Like, do we know? Can we say anything for sure based on your quantitative data?
Erin Murphy-Graham 14:58
I don’t know. Can we ever say anything for sure? So, the quantitative data -and this is actually a really tricky thing to measure. So, and the reason why it’s a tricky thing to measure is that this is not a randomized control trial where you’re sort of, you know, randomly assigning groups of girls to treatment and control. And also, just the timing of data collection means that -we were able to get funding to do data collection when the girls were in sixth grade. So, they were still in primary school. And then in their first two years of secondary school. And then we had a funding gap. And so, we didn’t have data for the intervening years. And then we went back and did a final round of data when girls should have been approximately 20. So, on average, they were about 20 years old. So, we had this nice longitudinal panel, but we did not have data at every single year. And that’s definitely one of the limitations of the study. But I think these longitudinal adolescent studies are so rare. We have the Young Lives study, which is amazing. And so, I hope we can have more studies where we have, you know, long-term follow-ups of adolescents over the period of their transition to adulthood. So, in this work, what we had to do was use a lot of triangulation. So, ask the same question several times. Like, when did you begin cohabitation? And when did you drop out of school? And then see if we could kind of calculate the timing. And then, we asked about what was the reason for school discontinuation? The sort of top reason why they decided to drop out of school. And then again, did a lot of in-depth interviews. It’s really through that combination of data that we are able to say -and this confirms our earlier research- that most girls had dropped out of school already before they entered into a union or became pregnant.
Will Brehm 16:52
And did that surprise you?
Erin Murphy-Graham 16:54
Yes, and no. So, I would say earlier research makes the same, you know, kind of conclusion in Africa. But I still think that, because actually, in the earlier work, we had interviewed girls who were still in school, ran off with a boy. And it was actually running off with the boy that made them drop out of school, right? So, we had found some more anecdotal stories that suggested that girls were actually dropping out because they’ve got married. But when we looked at the larger data set, we found that the pattern was that girls have dropped out of school. And then they really have nothing to do, right? They don’t have anywhere to go. And they’re just kind of idle in their paternal/maternal households. And so, for them, the next logical step is to get married. It’s like, what do I do when I’ve dropped out of school? What’s my life? Okay, my life is now I become a housewife and a mom. And that was a fairly traditional, like, we didn’t see in those instances that girls were trying to, you know, transform gender norms, or really just like, be at home and be independent. It was like when they had dropped out of school; to them, the next logical step in life was to become a wife and to become a mom.
Will Brehm 18:13
And so, it still begs the question of why are girls dropping out in rural Honduras?
Erin Murphy-Graham 18:19
Yeah. And I think that that is something that we really need to address, particularly now with the COVID crisis. So, dropout is a huge issue. It has been a huge issue for quite some time in upper secondary. And international community has committed to try to improve the quality of education and to try to ensure that all adolescents have access to schooling up through primary and secondary grades. But what we have seen in Latin America is that even though there is access to education, adolescents don’t necessarily stay in secondary school. So, there have been a few studies recently that point to the notion of opting out of school. And opting out of school builds on earlier theoretical frameworks that Rumberger has proposed on studies about dropout that understand it as this confluence of factors that include being pushed out of school. And that might be sort of policies, or harassment, or even potentially low grades that some would push a student out. Then there’s also these pull factors that would pull a student out of school. So, for girls, one factor would actually be a boy. Like if there is a boy that saying, come run off with me. That boy would pull her out of school. Or her parents could pull her out to say; I need you to stay home and take care of your younger siblings. For males, it’s often work opportunities that pull them out of school. But in Latin America, we are seeing lots of dropout due to opting out, which is basically that it’s not really a push or a pull or the combination of the two, but just really this consensus that schooling is not going to be of benefit to them in their lives. That they’re not going to have meaningful work opportunities, they’re not going to have meaningful opportunities for really engagement in either the labor force or higher education. They’re going to be in their communities as farmers or as housewives. They just don’t see another future. And so, they think, why am I doing this? Why is this relevant? And how will it improve my life? And I’d kind of just rather not do this. Like not wake up early, not put on my uniform, not, you know, do whatever it may be. And so, they opt-out. And so, we found some of that as well and trying to understand why girls were dropping out of school. But this is something that’s so important because the statistics project a very high level of dropout because of COVID, right? So, the idea is that once COVID ends, kids will never return to school. And so, understanding the factors that lead to their dropout, prior to COVID, I think can help inform policies also post-COVID, to make sure to get kids back into school.
Will Brehm 21:08
So, it seems like a conclusion or a potential insight here would be that to keep girls from getting married early and getting pregnant early, we have to find ways of keeping them in school that they already are enrolled in and figuring out ways to connect the schooling that they’re in to some meaningful future that they envision themselves participating in. Be it a job, whatever it is, higher education, but that that seems to be the crux of the issue then. So, it is a focus on what is the connection between schooling and one’s future in rural communities. That seems to be the crux of the issue.
Erin Murphy-Graham 21:47
I totally agree with that conclusion. And I think that it does really raise issues because, you know, schooling has traditionally been seen as a protective factor for youth in general. Like, if they’re in school, this will protect them from harm that might come of them if they’re not in school. So, definitely, the discourse around child marriage is, “keep girls in school, and all will be well,” right. So, if we keep them in school, and we keep them there till, you know, they’re 18 years old, they’ll learn what they need to learn, and it will also protect them from entering into unions, or, you know, getting pregnant and things of that nature. So, I think that really is the question, how do we keep girls in school? But there are more questions about this because part of it is, you know, let’s imagine -and we had cases like this that came out through the qualitative work that sometimes girls were in their final years of high school. Maybe they were 17, turning 18, and they wound up actually in these unions. But it was a much more deliberate choice, right. So, girls had -before deciding to move in with their boyfriends- said, I want to stay in school. Will you support me in my studies? And in a few cases, it was yes; I will. And so, the girls entered into the union with someone that they were in love with; they were supported to finish their schooling. So, I think that the idea is, yes, stay in school. But also, we have to work on changing some of the norms that we already see happening actually, if we dig deep enough in Honduras, there’s a strong idea that once you enter into a union, or you become a mom, you’re done with your schooling. And so, there’s been work like sort of suggest that pregnant girls and girls with children can go back to school, but the norm is actually even stronger that married girls don’t go back to school. So, we have to also work on changing those norms so that even if girls do drop out of school, that they can go back, or they don’t have to drop out at all, they can stay enrolled. That’s one big issue. And then I do think it’s the question, how do we have schools be places that are offering that -there’s this idea in adolescent development that we need to have competing joy, right? So, joy is something that adolescents experience through in their lives, but schools need to be places that compete with the joy that girls might get through, you know, playing outside of the household. Playing sports, or playing with their friends, or you know, that I think that basically, and I will say, you know, during this time of COVID, when my kids have been schooling from home, they keep saying, this isn’t fun. This isn’t fun. I say, well, school is not always fun. But I do think that in addition to the academic content that we want kids to learn in school, they need to be places that kids have fun in, right. They need to play, and they need to, you know, really compete with the joy that girls might get through these adolescent intimate relationships. And so, I think, yes, we need to think about how to make schools more attractive, how to make schools places kids don’t want to drop out of. But you know, the fact of the matter is that we can’t expect schools to solve these issues either, right? So, that’s putting a lot on schools. It’s like, okay, now we need to do this and this and this and this and this. So, this is definitely something where an intersectoral approach is going to be very, very important.
Will Brehm 25:12
So, in Honduras, how many years of schooling are constitutionally guaranteed?
Erin Murphy-Graham 25:17
Will Brehm 25:19
Right. So, I mean, we’re talking about levels of schooling, if they’re dropping out at 16-17. I mean, they would be past ninth grade, is that right?
Erin Murphy-Graham 25:27
That’s right. And that’s where it got hard for me to think like, why is this wrong? You know, or why is it not even wrong? But is this a Western lens really was my main concern. Like, is this lens on child marriage, something that has come from a Western gaze, saying, Oh, no, no, we don’t do that. And so that’s not good. Because to me, it was actually -especially when you get to understand the thought process. And you interview these older adolescents about their choices. They made deliberate, rational choices given the constraints that they had in their lives. And sometimes it’s hard to make the argument that that wasn’t the best choice for them at that time. You know, so girls who are 16-17 years old, again, especially if they’re able to prevent pregnancy, and they’re able to genuinely do family planning, right? So, plan together with their partner, when are we ready to have a child, then it does, I think, become much more slippery to say that there’s something problematic about this practice. So, I think that you know, again, I focus less on the age. But I understand for the purposes of international advocacy why there is still a focus on age 18. But I do think it’s much more complicated. And I think that we have to, you know, really listen to youth, and I think the goal is that we don’t just prevent marriage. That’s not the goal of these policies, but it’s actually on improving gender equality within marriage. So, the work that we have been doing is emphasizing what we need are relationships where equality is one of the characteristics of the relationship. So, how do schools and comprehensive sexuality education programs, how do they prepare both boys and girls to understand what an equitable relationship looks like? What’s consultation in the context of a relationship? How does one make sacrifices for the other person in the relationship? So, the work is really about not preventing something but actually promoting something. So, it’s really trying to get out of this discourse of don’t do that, but what is it that we aspire to, and we aspire to live in a world where we can transform gender inequality and have societies that are characterized by equitable gender relations. And marriage is so important in that. And so, that’s really, I think, where this work needs to go.
Will Brehm 27:59
And so, a lot of that work must then focus on the young men who are getting married.
Erin Murphy-Graham 28:04
Yes, I think that’s a huge piece of this, Will. So, thanks so much for bringing it up. I think one of the other really frustrating things is that this discourse is so focused on girls. You would talk about adolescent girls’ pregnancy, but someone’s getting them pregnant. Why aren’t we talking about the impregnators, right? So, yes, I think another huge tendency, and I think direction the work is going in, is recognizing that we cannot address this issue without addressing notions of masculinity. And without trying to change the way that boys think about themselves and their rules and are also committed to promoting gender equality in their lives and through their families.
Will Brehm 28:47
Well, Erin Murphy-Graham, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It really was a pleasure to talk today.
Erin Murphy-Graham 28:52
Thank you so much, Will. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
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Related publications by Guest
School dropout, child marriage, and early pregnancy among adolescent girls in rural Honduras
Opening minds, improving lives: Education and women’s empowerment in Honduras
And when she comes home? Education and women’s empowerment in intimate relationships
Opening the black box: Women’s empowerment and innovative secondary education in Honduras
Convention for the International Rights of the Child
Alternative Secondary Education Program in Honduras (SAT) – Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial
Other Related Resources
2.5 million more child marriages due to COVID-19 pandemic
Child marriage and intimate partner violence: A comparative study of 34 countries
Girls, education, and narratives of progress: Deconstructing the discourse on child marriage
Silenced subjectivities & missed representations: Unpacking the gaps of the international child marriage discourse
Child-marriage activism organizations
Honduras outlaws child marriage but it could be a cultural challenge
Worth of a girl – Child marriage around the world
Too young to wed: The secret world of child brides
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