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What works to keep adolescent girls in school? A three-part series

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As part of some work we're doing in Zambia and Malawi, I was asked to put together a review of what interventions work to improve schooling among adolescent females. I thought it may be useful to share it here and because the final policy brief will be longer than 2,500 words, I decided to turn it into a three-part series. Below is Part 1, which is concerned with increasing the returns to education for women.

Gender gaps in education have closed in almost all countries, especially at the primary level. In fact, these gaps have reversed in many countries in secondary education, especially in Latin America, the Caribbean, and East Asia, where it is now boys and young men who are disadvantaged. Despite the overall progress, however, primary and secondary school enrollments for girls remain much lower than for boys for disadvantaged populations in many Sub-Saharan countries and some parts of South Asia (World Bank 2012). One of the key messages of the World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development is that much of the progress was possible when the removal of a single barrier was sufficient to make significant gains. Three main areas where this has been possible are: (i) increasing returns to education for women; (ii) removing institutional constraints; and (iii) increasing household incomes. In this policy brief, we summarize the extant evidence in these three areas and draw some policy conclusions.

1. Increasing returns to education for women

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of girls’ schooling is the issue of incentives to keep girls in school and the extent to which parents and children act with full information. In fact, most households may not invest in schooling for their children either because they correctly perceive low returns or information about job opportunities for women and returns to schooling is incomplete. Recently, evidence has been accumulating, which suggests that school enrollment can increase significantly without subsidies or financial assistance when jobs and information become available.

For example, in Bangladesh and India, the availability of white-collar jobs that require some skills, such as English, computers, some math and literacy, significantly increased school enrollment (Munshi & Rosenzweig 2006, Oster & Steinberg 2013, and Heath & Mobarak 2015). The effects by gender depend on the types of jobs and how they’re advertised, but they are generally localized, indicating that lack of information about these jobs may be a constraint: when recruiters for the business processing industry were sent to villages within 50-150 KMs of New Delhi to provide information sessions for women only and advertise the jobs as for women with secondary school education, parents investments in adolescent girls’ schooling increased substantially: there were increases in school enrollment – particularly for taking English and computer courses – delays in marriage and childbearing, and even increases in the body mass index of girls 5-15 (Jensen 2012).

Sometimes, a lack of information about the returns to education can also be a barrier. For example, providing students statistics about the distribution of jobs by education level and the mean earnings of 25 year-old Malagasy males and females in Madagascar, or information about higher returns to schooling for high-school graduates in the Dominican Republic led to increased school attendance, attainment, and test scores (Nguyen 2008; Jensen 2010). Such barriers can also combine with norms and aspirations to lower schooling investments. In the Dominican Republic experiment mentioned above, girls were reluctant to provide estimates of how much they could expect to earn in the future because they thought they’d never work. In India, when a third of the villages were randomly assigned to have female “pradhans”, some villages ended up having female leaders for two consecutive terms by chance, which led to the elimination of the gender gap in school enrollment and an increase in the aspirations of both the girls and their parents (Beaman et al. 2012).

The evidence summarized here suggests that if policies in developing countries increase the availability of safe jobs for women that require some skills, disseminate information about the availability and returns from these jobs, and can increase the number of role models for young females, schooling investments can increase on their own without further assistance from the government.

Next post (Monday, September 28): Part 2: Removing Institutional Constraints

References (with apologies for no hyperlinks)

Beaman, Lori, Esther Duflo, Rohini Pande, and Petia Topalova, “Female Leadership Raises Aspirations and Educational Attainment for Girls: A Policy Experiment in India,” Science, 335(2012): 582-586.

Heath, Rachel, and A. Mushfiq Mobarak, “Manufacturing Growth and the Lives of Bangladeshi Women,” Journal of Development Economics, 115(2015): 1-15.

Jensen, Robert, “The (Perceived) Returns to Education and the Demand for Schooling,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 125(2010): 515-548.

Jensen, Robert, “Labor Market Opportunities Affect Young Women's Work and Family Decisions? Experimental Evidence from India,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 127(2012): 753-792.

Munshi, Kaivan, and Mark Rosenzweig, “Traditional Institutions Meet the Modern World: Caste, Gender, and Schooling Choice in a Globalizing Economy,” American Economic Review, 96(2006): 1225-52.

Nguyen, Trang, “Information, Role Models, and Perceived Returns to Education: Experimental Evidence from Madagascar,” working paper, MIT, Cambridge, MA, 2008.

Oster, Emily, and Bryce Millett Steinberg, “Do IT service centers promote school enrollment? Evidence from India,” Journal of Development Economics, 107(2013): 123-135.

World Bank, “World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development,” Washington, DC, The World Bank, 2011.


Berk Özler

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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