Adolescent bodily integrity and freedom from violence in Ethiopia

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By Nicola Jones, Elizabeth Presler-Marshall, Sarah Baird, Joan Hicks, Guday Emirie, Workneh Yadete, Yitayew Alemayehu, Bezawit Bekele and Elshaday Kifle Woldevesus


Existing evidence suggests that most Ethiopian adolescents have experienced at least one form of age- or gender-based violence (Pankhurst et al., 2018; Save the Children, 2011), and although declining over time, according to the latest Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS) (2016), harmful traditional practices are estimated to affect a significant proportion of the country’s girls, including child marriage (40% of girls 15–19 years) and female genital mutilation and cutting (47% of girls 15–19 years), (CSA and ICF, 2017).

This report on adolescent bodily integrity and freedom from violence is one of a series of short baseline reports focused on emerging mixed-methods findings from the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) longitudinal study baseline data collection. Drawing on a gender and capabilities framework, the report focuses on adolescents’ experiences and perceptions of age-, sexual and gender-based violence in Ethiopia, paying particular attention to gender and regional differences in risks and access to services as well as those between adolescents with disabilities and those without. The report also discusses the range of change strategies currently being implemented to fast-track social change, as well as the related gaps in the policy and programming landscape.

Research methodology

In Ethiopia, our research sample involves a survey with more than 6,800 adolescent girls and boys from two cohorts aged 10–12 years (younger adolescents) and 15–17 years (older adolescents), and more in-depth qualitative research with 240 adolescents and their families. The baseline data was collected in selected sites in Afar, Amhara and Oromia regional states and Dire Dawa city administration during 2017 and 2018. The sample includes some of the most disadvantaged adolescents (adolescents with disabilities, married girls and adolescent mothers, adolescents from pastoralist and remote rural communities, adolescents from internally displaced households and child-headed households). Three subsequent rounds of data collection will be carried out in 2019/2020, 2020/21 and 2022/23 with the younger cohort when they reach 12–14 years, 13–15 years and 15– 17 years, and with the older cohort at 17–19 years, 18–20 years and 20–22 years. The main qualitative research will happen at the same junctures, but we will also undertake peer-to-peer and participatory research from late 2018/ early 2019 onwards on an annual basis to explore peer networks and the experiences of the most marginalised adolescents in more depth..

Key findings

Overall our findings highlighted that adolescents face significant and multidimensional risks in terms of bodily integrity and violence, but that the patterning of these risks differs considerably by gender, age and geographic location.

  • Age-based violence: Most adolescents experience corporal punishment at the hands of their parents and by teachers in the case of school-attending adolescents. For boys, who tend to be less compliant, this punishment can be quite severe. Girls are more likely to be punished for violating gender norms and for ‘misdeeds’ beyond their control, including being late for school on account of domestic and care work responsibilities.

  • Peer-to-peer violence: Primarily perpetrated by boys against other boys, peer-to-peer violence is widespread and is rooted in boys’ need to demonstrate their masculinity.

  • Sexual and gender-based violence: For girls, the links between verbal violence, physical violence and sexual violence are complex and difficult to disentangle. Girls are at risk of verbal harassment when they are young and increasingly at risk of sexual assault as their bodies mature. Although at lesser risk, some boys in our research sites reported incidences of sexual violence perpetrated against boys – something that is still a taboo to discuss.

  • Political violence: Adolescents were also at heightened risk of being caught up in the political violence that was widespread during the baseline data collection period in 2017/2018. This was especially pronounced in East Hararghe where there were large numbers of internally displaced persons due to ethnicity-based violence between communities in Oromia and Somalia regional states.

  • Child marriage: Rooted in attempts to control girls’ sexuality, child marriage shows remarkable variation in incidence and patterning across locations. In South Gondar (Amhara), for example, child marriage is often still arranged by parents but is overall declining; in Zone 5 (Afar), there are limited signs of change with the majority of girls married before 18 years; while in East Hararghe (Oromia), girls in some locations are ‘choosing’ child marriage in a context where there are few other options for adolescents (and adolescent girls in particular).

  • Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C is a deeply rooted cultural practice carried out on girls at very different ages in our research sites (ranging from early infancy to early adolescence). Our findings suggest that in Afar and Oromia, where historically the practice was more invasive, there appears to be a trend towards the less invasive sunna form rather than elimination of the practice.

Change strategies

In terms of programming and policy efforts, very little is currently being done to reduce corporal punishment within the home and within schools as well as peer violence, whereas there are some multi-layered efforts to address sexual and gender-based violence – especially child marriage and, to a lesser extent, FGM/C. GAGE findings, however, highlight that tailored approaches are lacking to address harmful traditional practice in ‘hotspot’ communities.

Policy and practice implications

Our mixed-methods research findings on the patterning of adolescent girls’ and boys’ perceptions and experiences relating to age- and gender-based violence, including harmful traditional practices, as well as current programming efforts to tackle such violence, point to a number of key policy and practice priorities as follows:

  • Engage with adolescents to address underlying social and gender norms that perpetuate violence: Directly tackle the social norms that leave boys at risk of age-based violence, including bullying, and girls at risk of sexual violence and harmful traditional practices, focusing on masculinities and beliefs about girls' sexuality (including those related to age at marriage and FGM/C) by expanding and strengthening attention to these topics into civics classes, youth centres, and other non-school-based platforms. Complement classroom-based approaches with the design and rollout of mass media and social media campaigns to tackle harmful social norms underpinning age- and gender-based violence, beginning with urban adolescents where mobile phone and internet connectivity is considerably higher.

  • Engage with parents and communities to raise awareness about adolescents’ vulnerability to multiple forms of violence and prevention and response pathways: Community conversations and messaging by health extension workers, traditional and religious leaders as well as Ethiopia’s new social worker cadre are needed to tackle corporal punishment in the home and at school, bullying and sexual and gender-based harassment and violence. Guidance for parents in the form of parenting classes, community conversations and media campaigns (in urban areas) could help parents of adolescents understand the risks their children face, become exposed to nonviolent parenting practices, and also how to report and follow up on cases of violence. It is critical that such community engagement efforts also highlight the risks of child marriage and FGM/C, especially the most damaging forms. Given considerable variation across and within regions in terms of the underlying drivers, perpetrator profiles, and age at which adolescents are most at risk of harmful traditional practices, care needs to be taken to tailor approaches and messaging to context specificities. This is important if the government’s ambitious targets to eliminate child marriage and FGM/C by the mid-2020s are to be realised, especially given that our findings – along with the broader literature – suggest that social norm change processes are often complex and non-linear.

  • Work with schools to support non-violent classroom management techniques, backed up by anonymous reporting options for students and teacher discipline where needed. Parent–teacher–student association efforts to codify punishments should be reshaped to focus on the rationale for and practical guidance regarding positive discipline approaches.

  • Strengthen formal justice mechanisms by increasing awareness of and response mechanisms to age-, gender- and sexual-based violence as they affect both boys and girls within the police, prosecutors and judges, whilst simultaneously expanding the coverage, resourcing and mandate of local gender units to provide more specialist inputs. Reform efforts should engage with traditional justice mechanisms given their resonance at community level but be careful to avoid reinforcing discriminatory gender norms and local community cleavages, and to promote formal reporting and improved prosecution rates.

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