‘Tackle the underlying reasons for early marriages’

For her Master International Development Studies Her Choice Master student Samy Verhaaren wanted to know more about the mental well-being and well-being enhancement among young married and single mothers in Ghana. We asked Verhaaren six questions about her research. Part five of a series of interviews with Her Choice researchers.

You found that community norms are hindering sexuality education in schools, what could a programme like Her Choice learn from this?

Even when a school has the perfect curriculum to provide comprehensive sexuality education, it could easily not work in practice. I feel that it is still up to the teachers to actually provide comprehensive sexuality education in school, while parents educate their children about sexual relations at home. If educators do not support the use of modern contraceptive methods for example, based on religious, cultural and traditional arguments, then the sexuality education they provide will not be comprehensive. Therefore, I strongly feel that a programme like Her Choice should hold meetings with key figures in communities, including teachers, and ask how they feel about family planning: How can teenage pregnancies be prevented? Will they promote all contraceptive methods? Do they teach about the advantages of engaging in protected sex? With this information in mind new strategies could be put in place to prevent early marriage.

Your study suggests that coming to a marriage agreement uplifts the social status of a woman, whereas failing to reach a marriage agreement lowers her status. What can we learn from this?

It is crucial to realize the importance of the institution of marriage in the context of Ghana. An unmarried woman will generally be taken less seriously and could be subjected to insults from her own community. This creates for girls a lot of pressure to get married. On top of this, there is the issue of becoming an unmarried mother. It puts in perspective the choices girls and women make when they find out they are dealing with an unintended pregnancy. If an unmarried mother fails to reach a marriage agreement, her social status will likely be negatively affected. The community’s negative attitude towards her influences her mental well-being. On the other hand, agreeing to get married could uplift her social status. This could come with a positive attitude and understanding from the community – advantages that programmes like Her Choice should keep in mind.

You conclude that ‘married girls, in comparison to single girls, seemed to be more comfortable and satisfied with life in general’. This seems like it is almost impossible to convince girls, families and communities not to choose for an early marriage. How can Her Choice tackle child marriage when situations like this keep existing?

Even though the married girls seemed to be better off emotionally than the single girls, it is important to grasp the reason for this. Financial stability played a big factor in the girls’ mental well-being. I found that in my case, the unmarried mothers were very worried about their finances; whereas the married mothers enjoyed some form of financial stability. The reason for these marriages was usually a combination of pregnancy and financial struggles. Therefore, I feel that if programmes like Her Choice tackle the underlying reasons for these marriages, they could actually convince girls, families and communities not to choose for early marriages. When a girl does not become pregnant, can finish her education and has reasonable job prospects, there should be no need for an early marriage. Making her own money increases her chances of gaining financial independency, more freedom and happiness in the long run.

At the end of your thesis, you present a series of policy and practice recommendations which are specifically intended for governmental and non-governmental organizations. What is the most important one according to you and why?

Much research focuses on the prevention of early marriage and early pregnancy, leaving less attention for the lived realities of married girls and young mothers. My thesis has shown that young married and single mothers are in need of different forms of support. I feel that an underexposed but very important topic is their need for mental support. I realized that young mothers did not always have someone to talk to about their mental burdens. Therefore, I proposed to set up a buddy system that can mentally support young married and single mothers. The buddies – peers who have gone through similar experiences – should meet on a weekly basis for advice and support. In support groups they could focus on pressing problem-solving assignments and enjoy fun activities. In this way, girls with few support figures could be part of a support network.

What was your biggest personal lesson during your research?

My biggest personal lesson during my research has to do with the idea that a researcher must take into account his or her position in comparison to the position of the participants. As a young western woman, the community members often referred to me as Madam and approached me for financial assistance. However, the hardest lesson for me revolved around my Afro-European biracial background. Towards the end of my research period in Ghana I realized that I was seen as a ‘white’ western researcher. Particularly confusing for me was when a community leader told me in a focus group discussion he blamed ‘my culture’ for changing African traditions. Even though this made me feel uncomfortable, it was interesting to learn of this perspective and realize that the perception of my race is dependent on the historical, geographical and social context of the perceiver.

Her Choice seeks to examine the impact of the six Her Choice strategies on preventing and reducing the prevalence of child marriage in the different programme countries. A key goal of research is to determine which (combination of) strategies seems to be effective, and why. The Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR) at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) is the research partner of the Her Choice programme. The Her Choice research team is composed of three senior researchers (Dr. Winny Koster, Dr. Esther Miedema and Dr. Nicky Pouw), two junior researchers (Albena Sotirova and Philippe Meyer), two PhD candidates (Rashmila Shakya and Nashia Ajaz), and numerous UvA MSc and Research Master students. In addition to the impact evaluation, the AISSR team is carrying out in-depth qualitative research, including two doctoral studies (in Nepal and Pakistan), and MSc and Research MSc studies.