In Ethiopia, the lack of educational opportunities for girls is fueling the country's high level of early marriage, according to a new study, "Early Marriage, Marital Relations and Intimate Partner Violence in Ethiopia," by Annabel Erulkar, of the Population Council in Ethiopia. Using data on 20–24-year-old women, she found that most of those who had married before age 15 had never been to school (79%) and that only 3% had attained any secondary schooling. Unschooled women had nine times the risk of marrying before age 15 as women who had some degree of formal education and five times the risk of marrying at ages 15–17.

The younger a woman was at the time of her marriage, the more likely it was that her parents had no education. Among respondents married before age 15, 97% had a mother with no education and 91% had a father with no education; among those who had not married during adolescence, 76% and 64%, respectively, had a mother or a father with no education.

The analysis, which used data from a study conducted in seven Ethiopian regions, found that the circumstances of marriage varied according to age. Eighty-nine percent of girls married before age 15 had arranged marriages, compared with 52% of those married at ages 18–19. The majority of girls younger than 15 (71%) had not met their spouse until the wedding day, while that proportion was smaller among girls married at 15–17 (43%) and 18–19 (21%). Younger brides were also less likely than older ones to have been told in advance about their marriage. Of those married before age 15, only 33% had known about the marriage beforehand, compared to 65% of girls aged 15–17, and just 31% wanted to be married at the time.

Adolescents married at a younger age were also found to face greater health risks and physical abuse than older adolescents. While virtually all women reported that their first sexual relations had been with their spouse, those who had married before age 15 were far less likely to have wanted to have sex than were those who had married at ages 18–19 (49% vs. 85%). Furthermore, the youngest brides were more likely than older brides to have recently experienced intimate partner violence at the hands of their husbands.

About 80% of very early marriages took place in rural areas with high rates of poverty and where cultural beliefs and social norms uphold the practice. Girls in rural areas were found to be four times as likely as urban girls to marry before the age of 15. The highest rates of early marriage were found in the Amhara region, where the median age at marriage among females is 14.4.

The findings of the study have important implications for programs aimed at reducing the prevalence of early marriage. The author argues that given the vulnerability of girls married before age 15, special attention should be paid to delaying very early marriages. Since girls who are young and out of school are especially vulnerable to early marriage, community-based programs that get girls into school and keep them there may be more effective at combating early child marriage than strategies that address girls already in school or seek to change community attitudes toward early marriage.

The study, "Early Marriage, Marital Relations and Intimate Partner Violence in Ethiopia" by Annabel Erulkar, is currently available online and appears in the March 2013 issue of International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.

Also in this issue of International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health:

"Social Desirability Bias in Sexual Behavior Reporting: Evidence from an Interview Mode Experiment in Rural Malawi," by Christine A. Kelly et al.;

"Predictors of Sexual Debut Among Young Adolescents In Nairobi’s Informal Settlements," by Milly Marston et al.;

"Understanding Global Trends in Maternal Mortality," by Sarah Zureick-Brown et al.;

Special Report, "International Family Planning Fellowship Program: Advanced Training in Family Planning to Reduce Unsafe Abortion ," by Vanessa K. Dalton