Understanding factors influencing adolescent girls who run away from home in an arranged marriage society: implications for policy An exploratory qualitative study from Tigray, Ethiopia
Little is known about adolescent female runaways in Ethiopia. The study examines the main factors influencing adolescent girls who run away from home in Tigray, northern Ethiopia. An exploratory qualitative approach was adopted to address why and how the seven runaway girls of the sample decided to escape. Data was collected through in-depth interviews, key informant interviews and field observation in two different settings, Wukro town and Mekelle city. Although the runaway girls´ cases are the foci of the study, semi-structured interviews and a focus group discussion with a second cohort of older women married off at an early age, were conducted in order to explore community response toward adolescent female runaways, and contrast changing human behaviour across generations. Findings reveal that the immediate trigger that led all young participants to run away was to escape arranged marriage, except in one ‘romantic’ elopement case. Individual and structural factors, such as child maltreatment and educational aspirations, and new family legislation and campaigns against early marriage, respectively, also contributed to a parental resistance and the decision to escape. At a theoretical level, looking through the lens of Giddens' (1984) structuration theory, the study indicates a possible shift in social norms that affect gender roles in Tigray, and from a social constructivist perspective, it seems that adolescent runaways might be an ‘unconstructed’ child protection problem, as most runaway participants were supported temporary by relatives and the decision to run away is considered part of the migration phenomena. Thus, these vulnerable girls remain unprotected and exposed to a range of risks, such as early and unwanted pregnancies, labour exploitation, dropping out of school, and transactional sex relationships. Therefore, it is recommended that the issue of adolescent girl runaways is elevated to the policy agenda in Tigray. Keywords: adolescent female runaways; elopements; arranged marriage; early marriage; child protection; reproduction and social change, Ethiopia.