Ending child marriage and closing the education gap

Women in most parts of the developing world are under-represented in the workplace and poorly paid. One reason for this is the gender gap in education – women tend to be less schooled than men. Two countries that have made progress in getting girls into schools are Bangladesh and Uganda. However, despite increased enrollment, serious concerns remain over education quality in both countries.

In Uganda, pass rate in school public exams are low; students are behind their peers in neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania in terms of what they learn in school. In Bangladesh, evidence points to a weak relationship between years spent in school and basic numeracy skills acquired. A large proportion of the adolescents in Bangladesh, particularly girls, are in school but not learning. A similar pattern has also been documented for other South Asian countries.

According to the 2016 State of the World’s Children report of UNICEF, 38 per cent of children leave primary school without learning how to read, write and do simple arithmetic. What are the solutions? Research has found many, because the reasons why schooling does not lead to sizable gains in numeracy and literacy skills are many. Research on Bangladesh and Uganda presented at UNU-WIDER’s recently concluded Human Capital and Growth Conference provides new insights into the causes of low human capital formation in developing countries.

The role of early marriage

Educated mothers often compensate their children for the lack of learning in school by acting as tutors at home. Yet a majority of rural mothers in developing countries themselves lack human capital, with low literacy and numeracy skills. A key reason for this is the social norm of early marriage.

In patriarchal societies, the custom of child marriage remains one of the dominant factors causing girls to drop out of secondary school. Despite significant falls in poverty, the prevalence of early marriage has not changed much in South Asia and many parts of Africa. In Uganda, for instance, nearly one in every two girls is married before reaching their 18th birthday while in Bangladesh, two out of every three women aged between 20 and 24 marry young.

Bangladesh and Uganda

A study of Bangladesh by BRAC researchers Fathema Khatoon, Abdul Alim, and Professor Niaz Asadullah of Malaya University documents lower levels of literacy and schooling among women who marry early. A one year delay in getting married increases a mother’s schooling by around a third of a year. A study on Uganda by Naveen Sunder of Cornell University supports this conclusion – in Uganda a one year delay in marriage leads to an increase of 0.5-0.75 years of education and an increase of about 5-10 per cent in the chance of being fully literate. Together these two studies confirm the extent of human capital lost because of early marriage.

Intergenerational impacts

In addition to studying the adverse effect of early marriage on women’s schooling and literacy, researchers at the conference presented research on the intergenerational impact of early marriage on the children subsequently born. The Bangladesh study by Asadullah, Alim, Khatoon and Chaudhury found that being raised by a mother who marries early has a significantly negative influence on the numeracy outcome of her daughters. No such adverse effect is found for her sons. On the other hand, Sunder finds significant negative effects of early marriage on the child’s hemoglobin levels, and probability of being anemic or severely anemic.

Overall, the findings presented at the UNU-WIDER conference confirm that delayed marriage can lead to tangible gains in terms of an improved education and health status for the next generation. Efforts to build women’s human capital in Africa and South Asia therefore need to adopt a more integrated framework and explicitly tackle the problem of child marriage. The focus should be on empowering adolescent girls and improving their agency to make their own life choices independent of their schooling and socio-economic status. Without addressing social customs such as early marriage, policies that exclusively emphasize supply side improvements can only result in a waste of scarce public resources.

M Niaz Asadullah is Professor of Development Economics and Deputy Director of the Centre for Poverty and Development Studies (CPDS) at the University of Malaya.

Fathema Khatoon is senior research associate at BRAC Research and Evaluation Division.

Md Abdul Alim is research fellow at BRAC Afghanistan.