Early adulthood can prevent adolescents from access to decent and age-appropriate employment. During their early years, adolescents from poorer households often find themselves having to take on financial responsibilities prematurely in order to help provide for their household. Although the legal age of employment in Ethiopia is 14, many employers in rural and urban areas ignore these legal restrictions. Our quantitative survey finds that 5% of the younger cohort and 21% of the older cohort are engaged in paid work. The qualitative data show many underage adolescents working full time in informal, manual labour. Adolescents are engaged in different types of work, including domestic and farming family labour, paid work in factories and cash crops farms and this can have implications on the health and wellbeing of adolescents. One 12 year old girl from South Gondar, Amhara describes finding work when she was 9 years old in order to help provide for her family: ‘There is a guy who travels by motorbike….I told him that I want to work, then he found me the job…. We just bring small rocks and then put it somewhere and he pays us…. [I choose to work]… to change our life and get food to eat…. They don’t tell you that you can’t work because you are just a child’.
In Batu town, large factories such as Flower Company AFootnote 3 make up the majority of the employment options. Although the minimum age for working in the factory is 18 years,Footnote 4 we found adolescents as young as 13 are working there for up to 12 h a day. As a participant of a focus group discussion with migrant adolescent girls in Batu, Oromia, explains: ‘I left to Ziway in search of work. I was just a kid and even the people there didn’t believe I was fit to work. I lied that I was 15 when I first applied for the job. I wrote 15 on my ID with a pen’.
The forms of child labour that adolescents are often engaged in typically consist of long hours with risks of exploitation from their employer. In East Hararghe, farming of the seasonal crop Khat is a common economic activity for young adolescents. As an 11 year old girl from East Hararghe, Oromia explains, the working conditions are often extremely difficult: ‘They don’t even allow you to eat your food. They rush you to finish your food and return to the work. Due to this, we are sometimes forced to eat when we are about to leave for home…the work is difficult because we cannot break until it is time for lunch… there are also some employers who deny your payment’. The quantitative data finds that adolescent boys were more likely to be engaged in paid work than adolescent girls; girls were 22% less likely to be in paid work in the younger cohort and 50% less likely in the older cohort (Tables 3 and 4).Footnote 5
While boys are primarily pulled into formal forms of employment, adolescent girls often see their childhood truncated through unpaid work in the household. As a participant in a focus group discussion with fathers from East Hararghe, Oromia, explains: ‘A girl has to be absent from the school to take care of the small child until her mother returns from fetching the water. She cooks, and feeds the child’. The unequal distribution of household chores can result in poorer school attendance among girls and a lack of time for homework, causing them to fall behind in school and limiting their educational trajectory.
In Afar, where pastoralism is the primary livelihood option, young adolescents are relied upon by their families to undertake herding activities. The responsibility of the household is placed on these adolescents at a very young age, leaving them no time to engage in activities that are usually associated with their age group, such as attending school or playing with their friends. As an 11 year old boy from Afar who spends his days herding, alone or with his brother describes: ‘We have temporarily migrated to a locality, which is far from our locality and we are residing there…There are no children herding livestock with me; rather I spend the whole day alone in a forest. I prefer watering the young camels in the morning and spending my time at home after that, but my father wants me to practice herding camels and to be able to take full responsibility for taking care of the camels in the future’.
Education and learning has a significant influence over adolescent transitions and is a vital component for adolescents to reach their capabilities. Yet, as adolescents in Ethiopia transition through their teenage years, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay in school, particularly for girls. This results in many adolescents’ educational trajectories being cut short, as they often move straight into paid work or marriage and parenthood. Our quantitative survey finds slight gender differences in the younger cohort, with boys (86%) more likely to be enrolled in school than girls (82%). Although this is beginning to change, our qualitative findings highlight that gendered social norms can result in many girls leaving school as they reach mid-adolescence. As one key informant from East Hararghe explains: ‘School dropout starts from grade 8 exacerbated by low economic status of the parents to pass their children to the next grades…Many girls dropped out of school compared to boys because of marriage and economy’.
Transitioning through education is also not straightforward for adolescent boys, and as described above, many are pulled out of school to engage in paid work due expectations around providing for the household. As a 17 year old boy from Dire Dawa explains: ‘I was in grade 8 [when I quit school]. My mother began to lose in her business so that I had to start work in order to help her. Her expenses became higher when I go to school, I take some money for a Bajaj and there is breakfast and other meals for me and my sister. The only option that I had was starting a job’.
Although the rates of children enrolling in school are increasing each year, age of enrolment is a key issue. Our quantitative survey finds that the average age of enrolment in grade 1 was 7.7 years. However, this differs regionally, with Afar having the highest average age at 8.2 years. Our qualitative work highlights that this is often due to responsibilities related to herding livestock or the lack of school infrastructure in the region. A 12 year old girl from Afar explains: ‘It varies. [You might join grade 1] at age 11 or 12 or 13….I didn’t start grade 1 before age 11 [because] they didn’t send me to school…..I was keeping baby goats’.(see Tables 5 and 6)
Learning outcomes in Ethiopia are still extremely poor, particularly in rural areas, our qualitative data suggests that this is largely driven by poorly resourced classrooms, unmotivated teachers and limited parental support for education. Indeed, many teachers highlighted a significant lack of teacher training, leaving them unprepared for the classroom. As a school principal from East Hararghe highlights: ‘There is no training given on how the teachers should handle the students. There is also lack of materials…there are not enough classrooms and playgrounds. So it is below the standard’. In remote rural areas of Afar, where access to classrooms and teachers is largely non-existent, these structural barriers can have striking effects on adolescents’ ability to continue their schooling.
A prominent barrier to older adolescents’ educational transitions is the lack of accessible secondary schools, especially in rural areas. Adolescents in remote communities often have to travel long distances to attend school post grade 8. This mostly impacts girls, who are at risk of sexual assault on long journeys to and from school. As a group of fathers from South Gondar explains: ‘Parents are not interested to send their daughters to high school. This is because of the fact that girls in our community faced sexual assault when they travelled back and forth to high school, which in turn forced them to drop out of school’. Many adolescents stay in rented accommodation near the school to mitigate these risks, but they need the financial resources or family contacts to enable this, or they end up dropping out (Devonald et al., 2020).
Early Marriage and Childbearing
Whereas boys often find their youth curtailed by entry into paid work, we find that early marriage is a major cause of girls having to face adult responsibilities prematurely. Those who marry as children see their opportunities diminish; they are much less likely to be in school, have lower expected earnings, and are more likely to be young mothers (Wodon et al., 2017). However, our qualitative findings highlight that for some adolescents, particularly those in Amhara, child marriage is becoming increasingly uncommon, and adolescents are able to decide when and who to marry. As a father of an adolescent in South Gondar describes: ‘Yes, they are now refusing to get married with the force of their parents… because they go to school now, they realise their rights so they are also refusing to get into an arranged marriage’. Historically, Amhara had the youngest median age of marriage, so remarkable progress has been made in raising this age and tackling the most harmful forms of child marriage.
However, in the two other study regions (Afar and East Hararghe), the situation is markedly different, and child marriage is still common. In Afar, child marriage rates are still extremely high and often enforced by parents through the absuma system (marriages are arranged to maternal cousins and adolescents generally have no say in who and when they marry). There is strong support for this system in the community from both parents and some adolescents (boys are particularly supportive of the practice) due to the reinforcement of kinship ties. As such, going against the absuma system is met with severe punishment. As a 13 year old girl from Afar explains: ‘In our culture, parents arrange marriage and tell to the girl suddenly. I was angry when I heard as I am going to get married, but I calmed down since it is the culture’. Additionally, whereas boys can wait until early adulthood to marry through the absuma system, girls are often made to marry in mid-adolescence, leave school, and take on responsibility for the household, rapidly cutting short their adolescence.
In East Hararghe, progress on eliminating child marriage is similarly thin, with the median age of marriage remaining unchanged over the last two decades (CSA & ICF, 2016). Child marriage has always been strongly engrained in the community, and many parents in this area pressure their daughters to marry young. However, there has been a surprising trend in adolescent-driven marriage in this area. This is often due to stigma that results in older, unmarried girls being described negatively as ‘haftu.’ However, the picture is a lot more complex than this, and other drivers, such as a lack of education or work opportunities (that leave many adolescent girls with a dearth of alternative options), or the influence of peers marrying early, play an increasingly prominent role, as a man from a community timeline discussion from East Hararghe explains: ‘As a result of drought, families, due to economic problems, are unable to buy a pen let alone buy other necessities… Girls prefer marriage than to simply sit idle’.
Furthermore, adolescent girls face significant pressure to get pregnant shortly after marriage in order to demonstrate their fertility. As a result, many find themselves facing early motherhood, ensuring an abrupt end to their adolescence as they take on child caring responsibilities. The focus on childbearing for married adolescents results in a lack of knowledge about, and stigmatisation of, contraception, as a 14 year old girl from East Hararghe explains: ‘I am not using [family planning] now – before I have one child. If you stay without a child for a longer time, they will tell you, you are barren’. This is reflected in our quantitative survey, with only 25% of the younger cohort able to identify a form of modern contraception. This differs significantly by location with the lowest levels of knowledge seen in Afar (7%), followed by East Hararghe (14%), and South Gondar (40%).(see Table 7)
The consequences for adolescents who face premarital early motherhood are far greater. Adolescents who find themselves pregnant out of wedlock face severe discrimination from both their family and the community and often have to drop out of school due to the stigma and unsupportive environments they face. As a group of 15 – 16 year old adolescent girls from South Gondar explains: ‘There is this girl who was grade 6 last year…she got pregnant while she was grade 6…They’d call them names that are demoralizing, like ‘You whore!’, ‘You are useless’. They’d blame them like that. Her family became too upset and forced her to drop out of school, denying that she is their daughter’.
For unmarried adolescents, using contraception has additional challenges and is often highly stigmatised. However, in Amhara, contraception is beginning to be discussed more freely and has higher rates of use. This may be due to fears of the physical, social and economic implications of early pregnancy, as well as fears of becoming pregnant through sexual violence, as described by a mid-adolescent girl from South Gondar: ‘Girls that don’t have a lover get injected, fearing rape and getting pregnant’. In Afar, the availability of contraception is also increasing slightly, due to changing sexual norms in the region. Adolescents taking part in the cultural dance ‘sadah’ appear to be increasingly involved in sexual activity, and thus unmarried adolescents are beginning to secretly use modern contraception. As a girl from a 15 – 17 year old community mapping exercise explains: ‘The unmarried girls are using the medicine until they made their marriage legally. So we are using…the contraceptive methods…for three or six months’.