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?


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