Adolescent voices must shape policies designed to reduce early cohabitation in Peru.
As a researcher of Peruvian childhoods, I was invited to share insights from the Young Lives study in Peru at a recent conference on the international politics of child protection (held in Brazil). My particular contribution was to consider child rights and protection through the lens of adolescent girls’ experiences of cohabitation, informal unions and motherhood, based on a recent study in three Young Lives communities.
A key theme throughout the conference was that children’s and adolescents’ voices remain marginalised in policy discussions. My research shows that any policies that aim to reduce the levels of early cohabitation in Peru must be shaped by adolescents’ voiced experiences. A critical step to achieve this is to find more ways to empower adolescents – particularly girls – to have a stronger voice in their life choices.
There are many reasons why girls cohabit from young ages.
Latin America and the Caribbean is the only region worldwide where child marriage and early cohabitation is not decreasing (https://news.un.org/es/story/2018/04/1431011) and 23% of women aged 20 to 24 years old were married by age 18.
Our interviews with adolescent girls in Peru suggest that to reduce the prevalence of early unions requires, first, understanding why girls choose these relationships, and second, providing girls with attractive better alternatives.
Our research points towards a complex web of reasons why girls may choose cohabitation and marriage from young ages. These include: lack of social power within their family and intimate relationships; the desire to escape interpersonal and family violence; poor quality education; and poverty.
Many girls search for protection and material security, but are often unprepared and vulnerable
Those girls who had married at younger ages tended to come from poorer households and from rural areas and to have already dropped out of school. Many said they were attracted to cohabitation by the promise of protection, emotional security, care and financial support.
“He helped me; he bought me things, shoes, dishes, and pots… He told me; I’m going to support you” (Young woman from Pangoa, Peru).
The adolescent girls we spoke with told us that they had left their childhood home because they felt they had no say over decisions in their lives and they wanted to be free. However, once cohabiting, they went on to experience oppressive relations with their partners, as in the example of Yolanda who started cohabiting with her boyfriend at age 16:
“My father said that studying was not worthwhile for me, he said that I would not finish my studies because I would end up with a husband first. He always told me that, so I quit my studies. I met my partner, and we started living together. I was excited about it, I thought ‘I will finally make my own life’. But, my partner is a bit jealous. Sometimes when I say “I want to go out”, he says, “No!” I wanted to finish my studies, but that won’t happen now”.
The freedom that girls were looking for remained elusive, their lives in reality limited or controlled by their partners with whom they struggled to develop a healthy, balanced relationship. Our study found that girls who started cohabiting at a very young age (14 years old) were particularly vulnerable to physical and psychological abuse, and to forced sexual relations.
Schools are a crucial platform for intervening early on
At the conference in Brazil, discussions stressed the importance of investing in adolescent girls so that they are able to advocate for their rights across the life course. One essential space to build this capacity is in school. The positive picture is that in Peru, the gender gap in access to education is small and more girls than ever are finishing their basic education.
However, our research suggests that this is not yet giving adolescent girls a strong enough voice over their life choices or domestic situations. Early aspirations, acquired in part from being in school, are faltering as girls struggle to overcome unequal power relations within their households.
What needs to be done?
Access to education is crucial for girls, but we need to go further. In Peru, it is good that nowadays more girls are finishing basic education as is their right. However, we need to ask: are they receiving what they need to imagine and realise a different life?
From the start of school, girls needs to be encouraged to question gender roles and stereotypes and to learn about sexual reproductive health within the framework of a rights –based approach. If girls who attend school receive an education that helps them to understand gender inequalities and that empowers them, they can probably recognise that being involved in a partner relationship is not the only way to change their lives. Boys, young men and families, need to be included in this learning since girls along cannot shift the entrenched power relations that limit their life choices and their ability to exercise their rights. Only then will levels of early cohabitation start to fall.
As we approach the 30th Anniversary of the UN adoption of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, it is imperative that we step up action to ensure that children and adolescents are empowered to be resilient and to defend themselves against situations of any type of violence, but also to be in a better position to negotiate their life choices.
This is a snapshot of the findings from our research in Peru. Our full country report on early cohabitation and parenthood in Peru will be published soon. For updates, please follow up on @yloxford, @yMAPStudy, @NinosdelMilenio and on Facebook.
 The research was carried out as part of the multi-country Young Marriage and Parenthood Study (YMAPS), a collaboration between Young Lives and Child Frontiers involving case studies from Ethiopia, India, Peru and Zambia, funded from 2017-2020 by IDRC.