Educate Girls!

If you want to go forward send girls to school; to regress, try sending them home again.

For many years now, a growing number of authorities on aid to the developing world have come to the conclusion that there is no better way to spend an aid dollar than in underwriting schools for girls.

CARE has made empowering women a centerpiece of its international programs, and emphasized education as a path to empowerment.

T. Paul Schultz, a development economist at Yale University, in 2002, considering all alternative hypotheses, and confirmed what some others had been saying: the positive consequences of educating girls in poor countries outweigh those of any other intervention. I went over this and some other relevant research with a graduate class this week. What is the evidence?

First, past correlations between progress and the narrowing of the gender gap in years of schooling are strong. Latin America, East Asia, and Southeast Asia led the developing world in economic growth; all three regions had improved girls’ education faster than that for boys. South Asia lagged behind in both measures, West Asia more so, and Sub-Saharan Africa most of all.

Such broad correlations among historical trends in major world regions cannot prove causality, but there is much more detailed evidence. Economic analyses show that the impact of a given level of education on lifetime earning power is similar for men and women. However, the more basic the level of education, the bigger the impact for both sexes; that means getting six years of school instead of three generates a bigger return than getting twelve years instead of nine.

Since the poorest countries have wide gender gaps in education, giving those extra three years to girls instead of boys will add them at the primary rather than secondary level, with greater return on investment. Add to that the fact that primary education is cheaper (around $100US per child per year), and you strengthen the argument. But greater lifetime earning power is only the beginning of the gain.

Many studies show that family size decreases as women gain years of school, while the opposite change (if any) occurs as men make the same gains. Why should this be so? For one thing, women increase their reproductive success by investing more in a smaller number of higher quality offspring, while men can either do that or invest in multiple mating. The latter option is open especially to more successful men in cultures where having more than one wife is expected or condoned.

Also, educational equality between spouses makes it less likely for men to easily impose unwanted births on women, whether by refusing to use birth control or by other forms of sexual domination, including rape. (The Y chromosome inevitably turns dark in some men.) Meanwhile, women with more schooling have more earning power, making it more attractive to both husband and wife to work more and breed less.

Then too, of course, women with more schooling want the same for their own children, and if school either costs money or merely draws children away from work, you have to have fewer of them in order to school them. But that’s not all.

Women with more years of schooling have better health, including during pregnancy, and monitor their children’s health and nutrition more closely and wisely, ensuring a higher rate of survival and justifying reduced family size. Most ironically perhaps, education for women improves the health of their husbands, since men’s health is often watched more closely by their wives than by themselves.

As mentioned, this is not an expensive thing to do; it’s a matter of will. When Uganda abolished school fees, girls’ enrollment immediately increased 20% overall, and almost doubled among the poorest girls. Cash incentives for girls to go to schools in some parts of Bangladesh led to twice the national average in enrollment. Villages in India that offer a free meal at school increase girls’ primary education completion rate by 30%.

But alas, some countries are going backwards on this measure, and literally with a vengeance. In mid-January, Taliban forces abolished classes for girls in 400 private schools in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, depriving 40,000 of their education, with more than 80,000 others expected to drop out of public schools for fear of reprisals. Since terrorists burned some schools and threatened to bomb others, the fear was justified.

Now Pakistan’s government has ceded control of Swat to these same forces, and girls will be schooled, if at all, exclusively within Sharia law. It’s a logical stance for the Taliban of course. It’s the inverse of all I’ve said above.

If you desperately fear progress, if you hate modernity, if you want to reinstate medieval religious patriarchy, then the smartest thing you can do is abolish real schooling for girls. It’s the religious version of the worst the Y chromosome is capable of, and it represents a setback for the entire human species.


  1. A young Pakistani-American woman says:

    My parents were both born in Pakistan and they moved to the United States about 27 years ago. My brother and I were both born in Chicago. As a child growing up, I have watched my parents put a GREAT emphasis on me(their daughter) getting an education. even over my brother. My mom has reiterated how I should have 3-4 degrees and that I should be in school my entire life because of abundance of knowledge in our society. In their culture back in Pakistan, women were more involved at home. Their life was centered around home and not school, while for many men it was the opposite. It may also be linked to the family sizes back then with 6-8 children per family- allowing the older daughters to help care for their little brothers and sisters (this was the case for my mom). When my mother hit the age of 18, her parents began looking for suitable mates for my mom. My mom instead applied to a medical program in Pakistan. After being accepted, her parents told her that it was not right for women to be in school for that many years and get married that late- so in a way she was forced to get married. This is again why she has put a HEAVY emphasis on me getting the best education possible.

    I am an Ismaili Muslim and I believe in Prince Karim Aga Khan. He has stated on numerous occasion that if you were to educate one child in your family- educate the daughter. I just thought you would be intrested in my opinions about your post!

    Thank you for writing such a inspirational post!

  2. Dear friend,

    Thank you so much for this important comment. It is your story, and your family’s, that is inspirational! Your reference to Prince Karim Aga Khan led me to learn more about him, and other readers may want to do the same:

    I hope you continue with your education and do the same for your daughters. You will do a great deal of good in this world. Thank you again.

    Dr. Konner

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