Adolescent well-being in Ethiopia: Exploring gendered capabilities, contexts and change strategies - A synthesis report on GAGE Ethiopia baseline findings

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By Nicola Jones, Sarah Baird, Joan Hicks, Elizabeth Presler-Marshall, Tassew Woldehanna and Workneh Yadete


Ethiopia has one of the youngest populations in the world, with over half of its citizens under 20 years of age. Over the past two decades, it has made remarkable progress in increasing school enrolment rates for girls and boys, in expanding young people’s access to health and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, and in making some inroads into tackling conservative gender norms that perpetuate harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) (Jones et al., 2017; CSA and ICF, 2017). Rapid economic growth has also led to a fall in poverty rates but despite this, according to recent World Bank data, Ethiopia is one of five countries accounting for the world’s largest absolute numbers of people living in poverty, with nearly one-quarter of all citizens living below the poverty line (UNDP Ethiopia, 2018; Katayama, 2019). It also has very high youth un- and underemployment rates (CBMSIN, 2018).

This report draws on evidence from GAGE (Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence) – a unique longitudinal mixed-methods research and impact evaluation study focused on what works to support the development of adolescents’ capabilities during the second decade of life (10–19 years), exploring the patterning of adolescent girls’ and boys’ experiences in Ethiopia as they transition from early adolescence through puberty and into early adulthood. The far-reaching physical, cognitive, psychoemotional, social and sexual transformations that take place during the adolescent years, and especially following the onset of puberty, are considered second only to those experienced in infancy and early childhood in terms of their scope and speed. Given these pivotal life changes – and with a global adolescent population of more than 1.2 billion, most of whom live in the global South – the development community is increasingly recognising that adolescence offers a unique window in which to accelerate progress in tackling poverty, inequality and discrimination. By investing in young people, there is an opportunity to reap a triple dividend – for adolescents, for their adult trajectories, and for their children.

GAGE’s starting point is that adolescent transitions shape girls’ and boys’ lives, but often in highly gendered ways, due to the prevailing norms in their socio-cultural environments. These norms – especially around sexuality – start to become more rigidly enforced and more consequential in early adolescence, forcing girls’ and boys’ trajectories to diverge as they approach adulthood. To fast-track social change, understanding and tailoring programme interventions that are informed by this divergence is key.

This report is one of a series of short GAGE baseline reports focused on emerging mixed-methods findings. Based on the GAGE conceptual framework (see Figure 1), there will be a total of six reports outlining our baseline findings about adolescent boys’ and girls’ capabilities in six key domains: (1) education and learning; (2) health, nutrition and sexual and reproductive health; (3) bodily integrity and freedom from violence; (4) psychosocial wellbeing; (5) voice and agency; and (6) economic empowerment. This companion synthesis report summarises key findings and policy implications from a multidimensional capability lens.

Conceptual framing

GAGE’s conceptual framework takes a holistic approach that pays careful attention to the interconnectedness of what we call ‘the 3 Cs’: Capabilities, Change strategies and Contexts’ in order to understand what works to support adolescent girls’ and boys’ development and empowerment – now and in the future (see Figure 1). This framing draws on the three components of Pawson and Tilley’s (1997) approach to evaluation, which highlights the importance of outcomes, causal mechanisms and contexts; however, we tailor that approach to the specific challenges of understanding what works in improving adolescent girls’ and boys’ capabilities.

The first building block of our conceptual framework are capability outcomes. Championed originally by Amartya Sen (1984; 2004), and nuanced to better capture complex gender dynamics at intra-household and societal levels by Martha Nussbaum (2011) and Naila Kabeer (2003), the capabilities approach has evolved as a broad normative framework exploring the kinds of assets (economic, human, political, emotional and social) that expand the capacity of individuals to achieve valued ways of ‘doing and being’ (see Figure 2). Importantly, the approach can encompass relevant investments in girls and boys with diverse trajectories, including the most marginalised and ‘hardest to reach’ such as those who are disabled or are already mothers.

The second building block of our conceptual framework is context. Our 3 Cs framework situates girls and boys ecologically, recognising that their capability outcomes are highly dependent on family or household, community, state and global contexts.

The third and final building block of our conceptual framework acknowledges that girls’ and boys’ contextual realities can be mediated by a range of change strategies, including: empowering individual adolescents, supporting parents, engaging with men and boys, sensitising community leaders, enhancing adolescent-responsive services, and addressing system-level deficits.

Research questions

Stemming from our conceptual framework, there are three sets of questions that are central to GAGE’s research. They focus on: (1) adolescent experiences and the ways in which these are gendered and also differ according to adolescents’ economic, social and geographical positioning; (2) the ways in which programmes and services address adolescent vulnerabilities and support the development of their full capabilities; and (3) the strengths and weaknesses of programme design and implementation in terms of ensuring programme efficacy, scale and sustainability. At baseline, we are focusing on the first two questions; we will explore the third question in more detail at midline and endline.

Research methodology

To explore these research questions, GAGE is employing a mixed-methods research approach. This baseline involved data collection in rural and urban sites in Ethiopia, with a total of more than 6,700 adolescent girls and boys and their caregivers completing the GAGE survey (GAGE Consortium, 2018). We also engaged with a sub-sample of 220 adolescents, their families and communities through a variety of interactive individual and group in-depth qualitative tools (for more details see Jones et al, 2018b) on the research methodology and research ethics). Our sample included two cohorts: younger adolescents (10–12 years) and older adolescents (15–17 years) (for more details see the Annex).

Our baseline quantitative and qualitative data was collected between late 2017 and early 2018. Going forward, the quantitative survey will entail three follow-up rounds 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 annual peer-to-peer and participatory research from late 2018/early 2019 onwards.

Research sites

Our research sample in Ethiopia involves adolescents from rural, urban and pastoralist communities from three regions: Afar, Amhara and Oromia, as well as adolescents from Dire Dawa city administration (see Annex).

The rural sites were selected on the basis of two key but complementary considerations: (1) a review of existing data and evidence on adolescents and gender in Ethiopia, which highlighted the importance of understanding both the economic and social drivers that underpin disadvantage (see Stavropoulou and Gupta-Archer, 2017a; 2017b); and (2) programming capacity on the part of two of the GAGE consortium implementing partners, Pathfinder and Care Ethiopia. In terms of the first consideration around vulnerability criteria, we selected geographical areas with high rates of child marriage (as a proxy for conservative gender norms) (see Annex) and those with the greatest proportion of ‘hotspot’ child marriage districts (see Jones et al., 2016), as well as areas that are economically disadvantaged and/or food insecure (see Annex). In total we are working in five districts in each rural region, including 75 kebeles (communities) in South Gondar, 80 in East Hararghe and 20 in Afar.

The urban sites were selected to offer variation in size to contribute to ongoing debates about urbanicity (Hannigan and Richards, 2017; Chant et al., 2017). Thus Batu is a district town, Debre Tabor a zonal town, and Dire Dawa its own city administration and one of the largest cities in the country. We also selected urban sites that were in proximity to the rural sites in the case of Debre Tabor (South Gondar zone) and Dire Dawa (which is geographically close to East Hararghe) to better allow for urban–rural comparisons. In addition, we wanted to be able to understand adolescent transitions from education into work, and therefore Batu (with its significant floriculture industry and role as a migration hub for young people, particularly from the south of Ethiopia) and Dire Dawa (as a corridor to migration to the Middle East and with its emerging industrial park) both provide windows into new forms of employment. They can also reveal the extent to which young people are able to benefit (or not) from these new economic opportunities.

Given GAGE’s strong focus on vulnerable cohorts of adolescents, in line with the ‘leave no one behind’ agenda linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), our sample includes adolescents who are especially disadvantaged, such as: adolescents with disabilities; married, separated or divorced adolescent girls; adolescent mothers; and those from internally displaced communities. We included these adolescents in two ways: through a community listing process involving a random sample of adolescents of the requisite age; and through purposive sampling, in an effort to overcome the stigma, discrimination and invisibility that such young people often face in their communities (Muz et al, 2018).

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