The development of adolescent agency and implications for reproductive choice among girls in Zambia

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Article (peer-reviewed)

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Background: A substantial proportion of adolescent girls in Zambia lack the ability to decide their reproductive future. We examined the role of agency in early and unwanted adolescent childbearing. Methods: Using latent transition analysis, we characterized a multi-dimensional profile of adolescent agency annually over a four-year period. We investigated the influence of early life access to resources and time-varying predictors (school retention, violence, early marriage and unwanted/mistimed pregnancy and childbearing) on agency profile membership as well as transitions in agency status over time. Results: Four agency profiles were identified, with differences by age cohort (10–14 years vs. 15–19 years). Three profiles identified in both age cohorts were: Low-moderate agency, Self-assured gender conformers, and High agency. Unique to younger girls was the Gender conscious, low belief in abilities status, while among older girls was the Self-assured selective gender conscious status. While younger girls were likely to transition to the highest agency status over time, high agency membership declined among older girls. Early life resources were associated with augmented agency while exposure to negative events, particularly early marriage, were associated with detraction from high agency status. Girls who expressed high self-efficacy but gender-conforming values were most at risk of early marriage and unwanted/mistimed pregnancy while High agency girls were at comparatively low risk. Conclusions: Results show agency is dynamic but less mutable with increasing age. Early adolescent strategies which address inequitable gender norms and limit early marriage, may guard against losses to agency which contribute to unwanted fertility outcomes.