Empowering adolescent girls in East Asia and the Pacific to protect, build human capital


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Some recipients of a scholarship given to young girls in Cambodia at the end of primary school. The program has had a significant effect on girls’ secondary enrollment. (photo by Deon Filmer)

Those of us who have had the pleasure of raising an adolescent girl – and survived the experience – might blanch at the thought of a program to stimulate education that gave her, rather than the doting parent, a grant equivalent to 3% of the family’s average per capita monthly consumption. And yet, that’s exactly what a policy experiment, conducted by my friend Berk Ozler and other researchers, did in Malawi. What’s more, they found that raising these girl-targeted cash transfers increased school attendance much more than raising those given to parents.

Empowering women with resources has long been recognized as a powerful weapon to safeguard investments in human capital. Research has shown that transfers to women have a more powerful effect than to men in raising school attendance and ensuring that kids are immunized. But more recent research, like Berk et al.’s, is showing that policies aimed directly at adolescent girls and young women may have an even greater effect, not only in encouraging schooling but in ensuring reproductive health. Pascaline Dupas’ policy experiment in Kenya showed that simply giving young women information showing that older men were more likely to be HIV-positive led them to eschew partnering with ‘sugar daddies’.

Would such results apply to East Asia? I think so. Across countries, the ages at which young women make life-changing decisions about their human capital – such as whether to continue schooling beyond basic levels, start work, or marry – vary enormously and somewhat mysteriously (there is relatively little research on the ‘agency’ of adolescence). But what evidence exists shows that young Asian women do make key choices. A survey, sponsored by the World Bank's World Development Report 2007: Development and the Next Generation, showed that an overwhelming proportion of young Malaysian women (aged 15-24 years) felt that they had the most influence over decisions that shape their work (84%), schooling (65%) and marriage (82%). In comparison, the proportions for Bangladesh were, respectively, 50%, 18% and 4% (!). Some 56% in a UNICEF survey of 5,000 females aged 9 to 18 from East Asia and Pacific felt that their opinions counted in important decisions about their lives.

Do these young women make good decisions about the future? To preserve family peace, I will not answer that directly. But I certainly think that they can be helped to do better. After all, if I were as cash-strapped, starved of information and as risk taking as they might be, I’d probably make even more mistakes. A more important issue is how government policies can address these constraints.

One way is to provide young women with command over resources, i.e., income, like the researchers in Malawi did.  Such transfers would be especially beneficial in societies where the gains to households of having them in school do not outweigh the considerable costs, even if it were in the long-term interests of the girl. Some cultural biases against investing in girls relative to boys have led some researchers like Monica Dasgupta to conclude that this results in gender imbalance (or “missing women”) in some East Asian countries. Less insidiously, households may simply not be able to afford to have them in school, instead of doing housework or taking care of younger siblings or aged grandparents.

A second policy might be to equip young women with better information, as happened in the Kenya example. It is only natural that younger decision makers are more ignorant of options and less experienced at assessing them. The Philippines, which sends a million citizens a year as overseas workers, and where a third of all female migrants are aged 18-24, provides pre-departure training on financial literacy, HIV/AIDS prevention and other relevant topics.

A third policy is incentives. The Malawi experiment did not give the grant freely – it provided a condition. The girl got the money only if she were in school 80% of the time. Means-tested scholarships are now expanding in East Asia to great effect.  A scholarship program given to young girls at the end of primary school has had a significant effect on girls’ secondary enrollment in Cambodia, according to Deon Filmer and Norbert Schady.

The problems and solutions I’ve outlined above also apply to adolescent boys and young men. But since in many societies investing in the human capital of females needs considerable attention, I focus on them. In sum, should we encourage ‘girl power’ as a way to invest in human capital? With policies that provide what I might call the “Three I’s” – income, information and incentives – I definitely think so. Do you?


Join the Conversation

Asmeen Khan
December 14, 2009

Manny this is a great article and I like your take on this- the article actually showed lower HIV prevalence and risky beahviour in girls who got the additional payment--would be interesting to try it in EAP.

December 14, 2009

do you accept volunteer? i want to help in a simple way.

Emmanuel Jimenez
December 22, 2009

Dear Asmeen and Meliza,

Thanks for your comments. I couldn't do full justice in the blog post to the articles I referred to so I'm glad you read the original, Asmeen. I would encourage others who are interested in the topic to do the same.

Meliza, as for volunteering -- there are many opportunities. This is important for those who are young women themselves and want to participate more fully in their communities. The transition to responsible citizenship, as the WDR calls it, is key because how young people start to engage in civic life is a key determinant with their participation later on, including in voting behavior. But volunteering is also important for those who are adults but are still "young at heart" and want to help in programs that affect the lives of young women. The World Bank does not accept volunteers -- but there are many programs that do. I typed "volunteer young women developing countries" in a couple of search engines and got a lot of references. You might also want to look at the UNDP's UN volunteer program in case that is something that would interest you. http://www.unv.org/about-us.htm

Rebecca Jackson
January 22, 2010

Hello everyone,
I wanted to highlight the launch of a new website, www.girlsdiscovered.org devoted entirely to data on adolescent girls. The website maps data on adolescent girls across a wide range of indicators, in the areas of health and wellbeing, education, economic opportunities and legal support. The website brings together data from many freely accessible sources. Amongst the website features are the 'create your own map' function, that allows users to overlay two datasets on one map. Girlsdiscovered also provides three Action Guides that are designed to stimulate meaningful action at the national and local levels.

The project is the result of collaboration between global risks specialist, Maplecroft, the Nike Foundation and the UN Foundation.

Hope it is useful!

Emmanuel Jimenez
February 17, 2010

I checked out the website "Girls Discovered" and loved it! It's not only informative but it's also easy and fun to use. Thanks for the suggestion, Rebecca. While I am a 'map fiend' who has the strange habit of reading maps for pleasure, I'm sure others will also find it quite imaginative.

In exchange, let me point you and others to a video of the Cambodia Scholarship Program that I described in my original blog post. It's only a few minutes long and describes the program more vividly than I can describe in writing. It is available by clicking on the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSo6IycEX88