Key Themes

Key Themes

Important issues and clear patterns have emerged in our work in Ethiopia, as well as across all four study countries.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed in September 2015 set out a plan of action for the world for the next 15 years. The new agenda builds on the MDGs, and seeks to complete what these did not achieve, particularly in reaching the most vulnerable. Findings from Young Lives countries suggest there are a number of key entry points in poor children’s lives that provide an opportunity for policymakers to do just that. We have aligned our research and policy themes to some of the key SDGs to reinforce our central argument that inclusive policies – of ‘leaving no child behind’ – are key to creating healthier, more productive and just societies, and breaking the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Childhood poverty and inequality

Most of the families in the Young Lives study are poor, or relatively poor. What has economic growth meant for them? On the whole, they have become less poor, despite the global financial crisis. During the past 15 years, there has been a pattern of generally rising living standards, with many families noticing improvements in their homes and communities. However, progress for Young Lives families has been uneven. Often, it is the children from better-off families who have experienced the greater gains, so disadvantage is increasingly concentrated among the most marginalised children and inequalities are becoming entrenched.

Health and nutrition

Malnutrition and stunting continue to be central challenges, and both remain intrinsically associated with poverty and inequality. Children from poorer and more marginalised households are those who display the most serious levels of stunting and wasting. But our research also shows there are key windows of opportunity for inteventions that can help children recover from stunting.


Education has emerged as one of the central issues in the lives of poor children and families. It is increasingly shown to be of crucial importance to the life opportunities of poor children, making it a social service in increasing demand. But important questions remain over access and quality as well as over the ability of the education system to appropriately prepare young people for their future role in the market economy.

Adolescence, Youth and Gender

As young children, many of the Young Lives cohorts benefited from policy investments in health and education that were implemented as part of efforts to achieve MDG targets.  Compared to a few decades ago, they are more likely to spend their adolescence in school, to postpone entry into the labour force, and to delay marriage and childbearing.

However, young people face different risk factors, and some of these investments in early childhood may subsequently be undone if policy attention is not brought to bear on this later life-stage as well. By following the life-course of children as they leave early childhood, enter adolescence and transition into adulthood, we gain invaluable insights into how the risks and opportunities they encounter along the way can impact on their long-term outcomes. Gender becomes a more significant factor during adolescence, affecting boys and girls in different ways at different times. 

These insights highlight key opportunities for policymakers to provide support to adolescents and their families. Investing policy attention on this decisive period of children’s lives could result in more positive outcomes for both girls and boys in terms of education, economic participation, social capital, well-being and empowerment, and ensure the hard-won gains of early childhood are not lost.

Children's work

Young Lives Ethiopia has a significant body of research and analysis on children's work and child labour. Large numbers of children in Ethiopia, particularly in rural areas, engage in forms of work, often alongside their schooling. Children’s work can include chores within or outside the home or paid and unpaid activities outside the home. Some child work has negative impacts for children. In other cases, work may be an important way in which children develop and learn skills and are socialised into their families and communities.

We are also investigating the different paths or trajectories young people take once they leave school. By following the same Ethiopian children and young people over a long period of time we are able to track what factors in early childhood influence their choices later in life and the jobs they do.


Despite national and international attention, violence remains a feature of many children’s lives. Corporal punishment is frequently reported  in Ethiopian schools, with poor children describing being beaten for lacking school materials and uniforms, and for being absent because of the need to work. Peer bullying is also a common feature of many childhoods.

Early marriage

Early marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) are now both against the law in Ethiopia. However, moves to abolish these practices have encountered resistance, as both were traditionally seen as a way of protecting girls and securing their future through a good marriage by keeping them safe from abduction, as well as sexual activity and pregnancy outside marriage.

In 2016 Young Lives carryied out field research in both Ethiopia and India to look more closely at the drivers of early marriage. By exploring young pathways to marriage and parenthood we can contribute to the policy debates about how best to address not just early marriage but the concerns of adolescent girls and boys in their transitions to adulthood.