Adolescent economic empowerment in Ethiopia

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By Nicola Jones, Sarah Baird, Joan Hicks, Megan Devonald, Eric Neumeister, Elizabeth Presler-Marshall, Abreham Iyasu and Workneh Yadete


While Ethiopia is one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies and has seen significant declines in poverty levels over the past decade, high rates of multidimensional poverty persist. The effects on adolescents are particularly significant, including a high likelihood of involvement in child labour (Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), 2017). There is a growing evidence base on young people’s access to economic empowerment opportunities and the challenges of youth unemployment and under-employment, but this often overlooks gender dynamics, urban/rural differentials and the experiences of adolescents and especially very young adolescents who are excluded from labour statistics (Presler-Marshall and Stavropoulou, 2017).

This report on adolescent economic empowerment in Ethiopia seeks to contribute to these knowledge gaps. It is one of a series of reports presenting findings from baseline mixed-methods research as part of the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) longitudinal study (2015–2024). We focus on: adolescents’ economic aspirations and the aspirations of parents for their adolescent children; the extent to which adolescents are able to acquire market-appropriate skills and access assets and resources needed for future economic empowerment; the availability of decent and age-appropriate employment; and access to age- and gender-responsive social protection. We pay particular attention to gender, regional and rural and urban differences, as well as differences between adolescents with disabilities and those without. We also discuss the change strategies currently being implemented to fast-track social change, as well as 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 baseline findings

  • Economic aspirations: Adolescent girls and boys alike have high aspirations for their future livelihoods, as do their caregivers (with the exception of caregivers in Afar, who are more likely to envision their adolescent boys continuing with a pastoralist livelihood and for girls to be future homemakers). While urban adolescents generally have more specific career paths and goals and have some knowledge about what they need to do to reach these goals, their rural counterparts generally have very limited understanding of how they can translate their aspirations into reality.

  • Market-appropriate skills: Although Ethiopia’s technical and vocational education and training (TVET) opportunities are expanding, uptake among adolescents is limited due to perceptions that TVET qualifications are less desirable, minimum grade requirements, and cost barriers – except for in large urban centres such as Dire Dawa, where such courses enjoy a more positive reputation. Girls are accessing TVET centres, but pursue various courses that are perceived to lead to public sector employment, whereas boys appear more interested in courses that can lead to self-owned businesses.

  • Access to assets and resources: In terms of control over one’s finances, adolescents reported low levels of control (just 12% reported controlling their own income). There were important gender differences (for instance, older adolescent boys are almost twice as likely to control their own finances as their female counterparts) and regional differences, reflecting greater access to the cash economy among adolescents in East Hararghe due to the widespread nature of khat cash crop production and marketing opportunities. Adolescents were found to have very limited access to savings opportunities, affordable loans and banking services.

  • Access to decent and age-appropriate employment: Not surprisingly, older adolescents are much more likely to be in work than their younger counterparts (in urban areas, 17% compared to 3%). There is a significant gender gap, with older adolescent girls 50% less likely to be in paid work than boys of the same age and nearly 50% less likely to control money of their own. While there are limited regional differences among rural communities, adolescents from Batu in East Shewa are significantly more likely to be working than their counterparts in other urban areas (27% compared to 15% in Dire Dawa and 19% in Debre Tabor). Adolescents with disabilities face particular challenges in accessing employment opportunities due to infrastructural barriers, poor educational opportunities and community-level stigma and discrimination.

  • Access to age- and gender-sensitive social protection: The government’s flagship social protection scheme, the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) – from which almost one-third of the rural households in our sample benefit – has important effects on household consumption and covers some of adolescents’ school-related costs. The programme does, however, have important age and gender limitations in practice, including the risk of families substituting adolescents’ labour for that of adults on the scheme, and age- and especially gender inequalities in terms of distribution of the cash benefits within the household. The direct support component of the programme also has weaknesses in reaching adolescents with disabilities.

Change strategies

Programme initiatives targeting adolescents and their parents are largely small scale and are limited primarily to setting up savings groups. At the services and systems level, the government’s main focus is on TVET and the PSNP –which are at scale, and more recently on group loans for youth, but as our findings highlight, these have important limitations in terms of ensuring accessibility for the most vulnerable adolescents.

Policy and programming implications

Our baseline research findings point to the following policy and programming implications:

  • Policy actors and practitioners involved in promoting economic empowerment should consider how to raise awareness about and enforce safe and non-exploitative labour practices, including in factories, industrial parks, as well as for domestic work (which is not governed by Ethiopian labour legislation) and for migrants to urban areas and abroad.

  • In line with national legislation to promote labour rights, policy actors (including the bureaus of Labour and Social Affairs, Women, Children and Youth, Justice and Education) should consider how to improve anonymous reporting chains to report cases of labour exploitation and abuse (such as through youth centres, social courts, women’s and children’s affairs bureau offices and schools).

  • The Ministry of Education and other educational and skills building providers should consider how to improve adolescents’ numeracy and financial literacy, including through efforts to ensure young people stay in school up until the end of 8th grade to master foundational mathematical skills; and teach financial literacy (including budgeting, savings, how to open and maintain a bank account, etc.), in civics classes, as well as building hands-on programming into clubs, and in non-formal education centres.

  • The Federal Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Agency could consider improving awareness and uptake of TVET services by providing detailed and accessible information and guidance on TVET opportunities (especially to rural adolescents and adolescents with disabilities), reducing cost barriers, creating TVET pathways that begin with primary school graduation, and targeting TVET programming to local job market needs.

  • Government agencies, development partners and non-government organisations (NGOs) could consider scaling up access to savings opportunities for adolescents (especially girls), via clubs and youth centres, while regional credit associations could invest in scaled up access to credit programmes for older adolescents (especially girls), ensuring clear guidance, equitable access and fair repayment conditions.

  • In line with the National Social Protection Strategy’s commitment to inclusive social protection modalities, relevant ministries and development partners could work to ensure that the PSNP in rural and urban areas takes into account adolescent-specific risks and vulnerabilities, paying particular attention to the risks and vulnerabilities facing adolescents with disabilities, adolescents in internally displaced communities, and adolescent girls at risk of child and forced marriage.