A young Peruvian woman wearing a colourful hat and shawl holds a baby. She is standing outside. Village buildings are visible behind her.
A young Peruvian mother with her baby. © Young Lives / Sebastian Castañeda Vita

From research to action: How the Young Lives project is helping to protect girls from child marriage

Our early experiences can have a staggering impact on the rest of our lives – for better or worse. For young girls forced into marriages or unions against their will, usually with adult men, this can have profound lifelong consequences, including for wellbeing, education, and employment opportunities. Reducing early marriage can take many years of culture change, societal pressure, and policy change to transform the situation.

This is a strong example of how really robust, high-quality longitudinal research combining both quantitative and qualitative data can directly influence national policies to improve the lives of children and young people.


Dr Alan Sanchez, Young Lives Senior Quantitative Researcher

But along this journey, there are often turning points: pivotal moments that propel future progress.

In Peru, such a moment came on 25 November 2023 when the Government introduced new legislation to prohibit all marriages with minors under the age of 18. The potential impacts of this cannot be overstated: between 2013 and 2022, over 4,350 child marriages involving girls between the ages of 11 and 17 years were registered. Almost all (98%) of these resulted in young girls being married to adult men. But this is likely only the tip of the iceberg: estimates based on census data indicate that over 56,000 children aged between 12 and 17 (mostly girls) may be involved in a union and/or cohabitation.

This new law has closed a previous legal loophole which permitted teenagers to be married from the age of 14 years under certain conditions, with consent from at least one parent, despite the minimum legal age of marriage of 18 years for both girls and boys. Not only does the new law close this loophole, it also enables girls who were married as minors to have their marriages annulled.

On the surface, this may seem simply like a formal legislative process, but behind the scenes are years of evidence-gathering, lobbying, and policy engagement. In particular, the Young Lives study coordinated by the University of Oxford played a transformative role in building a compelling evidence base to champion the need for change.

An early-teenage girl stands in a dwelling with exposed brick walls and earth floor.A Peruvian girl at home. © Young Lives / Sebastian Castañeda Vita

Data that fills in the gaps

In combination, the Young Lives data fills in a key evidence gap by giving a personal glimpse into what early marriage is actually like in these countries. Beyond the high-level statistics, there are personal stories that resonate.


Julia Tilford, Communications Manager for Young Lives

‘It is rare that you can draw a direct link between academic research and policy change, but in this case, it is unequivocal’ says Julia Tilford, Communications Manager for Young Lives. Since 2001, the project has been following the lives of 12,000 young people in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam, using a combination of surveys (conducted every 3 to 4 years) and supplementary in-depth interviews to generate high-quality, large-scale longitudinal data on the causes and consequences of poverty and inequality. From 2005, Young Lives has been led by the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford. However, Young Lives also works in collaboration with key partners in each of the four study countries, who are engaged directly with national policy and programme decision-makers – those in a position to effect change. Young Lives has also worked with Child Frontiers to conduct in-depth interviews on the lived experience of early and child marriage and parenthood in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Zambia. 

Understanding the long-term impacts of early marriage for children and young people in poor communities is one of many aspects the study has holistically examined. It has demonstrated that girls who marry early are less likely to complete secondary education, leading to reduced opportunities to gain employment and financial independence. Girls from poor households and rural areas typically have limited knowledge about or access to sexual and reproductive health care and services, increasing the risk of teenage pregnancies. Furthermore, children born to young mothers (under the age of 18) generally have a lower birthweight and shorter height for their age. Girls who marry early are also at much greater risk of physical and psychosocial violence from their partners.

Infographic. Girls who marry young are more likely to drop out of school, have reduced earnings in adulthood, experience domestic violence, become pregnant in adolescence, and experience complications during pregnancy.Some of the harmful impacts that marrying young can have on girls. Source: Young Lives.

Every year, at least 12 million girls are married before they reach the age of 18. That is 28 girls every minute (UNICEF).

Translating research to policy impact

Leading up to the new Parliamentary Bill, Young Lives’ Peru team presented evidence on the impacts of early marriage and cohabitation through numerous presentations and briefings to key government officials, including in the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations and the Ministry of Education. When the bill was presented to Congress in September 2022, Young Lives evidence was directly cited by Congresswoman Flor Pablo, who then invited Young Lives team members to present their findings at an influential congressional roundtable.

Being on the ground for over twenty years has enabled our Country Directors to establish long-term partnerships of trust and collaboration with key government partners and policy decision-makers. This enables Young Lives to be very effective at influencing national policies and programmes.


Kath Ford, Senior Policy Officer for Young Lives.

Dr Alan Sanchez, Young Lives Senior Quantitative Researcher and part of the group who presented at the roundtable, says: ‘Having such a robust evidence base was critical, because many people in Peru didn’t actually believe that early marriage had negative consequences.’

Alongside engaging with policy makers, Young Lives has also communicated its findings more widely – developing an animation, and working with the national press, which led to the findings being cited in high-profile articles in El Comercio and La República. The momentum built by these actions proved critical to keep the bill in progress when a political storm unleashed following the Peruvian President’s removal in December 2022 after an attempted coup d’état. Although the debate was postponed because of this, the bill eventually passed with 97% of Congress in favour.

‘What I have learnt from this process is that change takes time’ adds Dr Sanchez. ‘Besides the years needed to build up our strong longitudinal evidence base, it also takes time to analyse the data and build up support in Congress. You also need teamwork and political allies. In this case, having the support of Congresswoman Pablo was pivotal. She was personally motivated to change the law, and championed our evidence with key government ministers. In the end, even those who were political adversaries agreed that the bill was needed.’

Looking Forward

‘While the change in Peru’s legislation is an incredibly important step in protecting young girls from child marriage, legislation alone is not enough’ says Kath Ford, Senior Policy Officer for Young Lives. ‘The Young Lives study shows that poverty, gender inequality, and discrimination are key drivers of child marriage, meaning that policymakers need to adopt a broad approach to deliver real change for girls and young women. Tackling the root causes of child marriage also involves working closely with whole communities, including men and boys, and ensuring vulnerable girls and young women are protected by effective safety nets.’

Young Lives longitudinal evidence on the causes and consequences of child marriage in Peru has been pivotal for driving this important legislative change. By giving voice to the lived experiences of girls and young women, the study has enabled a much more in-depth understanding of how poverty and entrenched gender norms continue to drive child marriage, particularly among remote and indigenous communities.


Congresswoman Flor Pablo

Young Lives evidence on the consequences of early marriage is also starting to have a significant impact in India, where nearly 1 in 4 young women are married before the age of 18 (UNICEF, 2022). The Young Lives India team were invited to present evidence to the Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee as part of their examinations of a proposed new bill to increase the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years of age. This would be a seismic policy shift for a country where the majority of young women currently get married between the ages of 18 and 21.

Dr Renu Singh, Country Director, Young Lives India, says: ‘Young Lives has raised the importance of curbing child marriage and brought this important issue to the attention of policy makers over a number of years. The fact that the bill to raise the marriage of girls from 18 to 21 years has been passed by Cabinet, the first critical legislative step, before being ratified by Parliament is testament to this ongoing pressure.'

Meanwhile, the Young Lives team in Oxford are now completing the latest round of survey interviews. With the respondents now aged 22 and 29, the study is now focusing on how they are faring in young adulthood across a broad range of areas, including physical and mental health, education, work, and family relationships.  New research findings will be published in early 2025. 

You can learn more about Young Lives on the project's website. 

A young woman crouches in front of a basic dwelling, holding a baby. A little girl stands close by.A young mother and her children in India. © Young Lives / Sarika Gulati