Despite much progress over the last two decades, girls still have lower levels of educational attainment on average than boys at the secondary school level in Uganda. In part this is because many girls are married or have children before the age of 18—often before they are physically and emotionally ready to become wives and mothers. Educating girls, ending child marriage, and preventing early childbearing is essential for girls to have agency, as future wives and mothers, and for Uganda to reach its full development potential.
The 10th edition of the World Bank’s Economic Update for Uganda focuses on the cost of not investing in adolescent girls, and specifically on the economic costs of child marriage, early childbearing, and low educational achievement for girls. These are closely linked. Ending child marriage for girls and early childbearing would improve the level of education they reach. Conversely, improving girls’ educational attainment would help reduce child marriage and early childbearing.
In addition, low educational attainment, child marriage, and early childbearing affect girls’ life trajectories in many other ways. Girls who marry or drop out of school early are more likely to experience poor health, have more children over their lifetime, and earn less in adulthood. This makes it more likely that their household will live in poverty.
Underage marriage carries more risk
Other heightened risks include intimate partner violence and lack of decision-making ability within the household. Girls marrying, having children, or dropping out of school early effectively disempowers them. This, in turn, affects their children who often face higher risks of dying by the age of five, as well as of being malnourished and doing poorly in school.
At the national level, the economic and social costs of child marriage, early childbearing, and low educational achievement among girls are very large. Ending child marriage today could generate up to US$2.4 billion in annual benefits by 2030 simply from lower population growth. In addition, women’s earnings today would be higher if they had been able to avoid marrying early. This loss in earnings is estimated at more than US$500 million per year by 2030.
These are just a few examples of the costs involved.
Under Uganda’s laws, child marriage is a crime, but much more action is needed to adequately enforce laws designed to delay the age of a first marriage and of childbearing. Targeted interventions that alleviate economic constraints to girls’ education are needed, too. It is also important to expand economic opportunities for the adolescent girls who dropped out of school and are not likely to be able to go back to school.
Imparting adolescent girls with life skills and reproductive health knowledge is essential, whether girls are in school or out of school. Safe space clubs have proven effective for such purposes.
To improve educational attainment for girls, basic conditions must be met. For example, at the secondary level, schools need to be built closer to where the children (boys or girls) live. An alternative is to provide transportation to schools. Providing separate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities for girls is very important, as is the need to reduce the risk of violence and sexual harassment in school.
For the broader challenge of gender-based violence and inequality, community-based interventions to work with men, women, leaders and service providers can be beneficial. We hope that the publication of the Economic Update will help catalyze attention and investments to provide a better future for adolescent girls. This is the right thing to do. It is also one of the smartest economic investments that the country can make.