There are endless studies showing education as a golden key for young girls in the developing world: Just a year of high school can bump up their economic prospects by 25 percent; cut chances of child marriage by more than half across Africa and Asia; and decrease infant mortality and total children birthed over a lifetime.
Statistics aside, education is the best tool for empowering for young girls and women trying to survive in patriarchal society. It builds a framework for a world with gender equality. The benefits to applaud are endless, but merely providing education is not an insta-fix.
A new study challenges this seemingly simple equation where education equals a better life.
In 1994, the Malawian government instituted free primary education across the country. Now research in the Population and Development Review reveals that this policy has not brought about the benefits that seemed inevitable, specifically the age at which a girl first gives birth. By analyzing nearly two decades of national data, the study found that while women are completing nearly twice as much schooling as their counterparts 18 years prior, before free education was offered, they are giving birth at the same young age.
A presumed result of education is that young girls will pursue economic opportunities and postpone marriage and childbirth until later. But that outcome failed to materialize in Malawi. Rather than delay a family—which would usually be an indicator of economic progress—the result was static. Before the free-education policy, the median age for childbirth was 18.9. A generation later, it was unchanged, despite the fact that the average woman’s schooling had doubled. What’s more, the girls who continued their education and graduated from secondary schools were giving birth now at a younger age than before the free-schooling policy.
What happened in Malawi, according to the study’s author, Monica Grant, is that the flood of students overwhelmed the education system, and quality declined so dramatically that the average literacy rate decreased from what it had been before free education.
“Just increasing education in and of itself is not necessarily going to change behaviors in the way we thought, though quality might have,” said Grant, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has been working in Malawi since 2006. “That’s the real twist: What is education actually able to deliver to the students who are having opportunities to learn?”
Malawi was one of the first countries in sub-Saharan Africa to implement free primary education—grades one through eight—for its citizens. Many others, including Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have followed suit. The move seems undeniably positive, but in the aftermath, the quality of the country’s education immediately plummeted. It isn’t just girls who are affected by the poor schooling system. In the course of research, Grant found that after five years of education, more children gained basic literacy skills, but the average kid was leaving school less literate than he or she would have been before the policy was in place.
“It’s not uncommon to see 150 to 200 first-graders under a tree with a teacher and blackboard,” said Grant of how Malawi accommodated the influx of new students.
The Malawian government coped with the influx of students by placing poorly trained, unqualified teachers in classrooms. The impoverished country had no resources to implement a nutrition program to keep poor children in school. And the issue was exacerbated when the government created a tier of lower-quality high schools, which were set up to take in the increased number of students moving onward from primary schools. These schools, said Grant, are of extremely poor educational value.
“Kids may be staying in school for more years but leaving with fewer skills than they would have acquired for those years [previously],” Grant said, noting that only 15 percent of the girls who graduate from secondary school are earning wages in the labor market. “There hasn’t been much economic development in Malawi. So there really are few alternatives to starting a family.”
The policy exists in a handful of other African countries, but Grant chose to study Malawi because, 21 years after the policy was implemented, a whole generation has passed through the system, while the newer programs remain too young for empirical data. All in all, UNESCO estimates that primary school enrollment jumped 42 percent between 2000 and 2007, when many of these policies were implemented. In Kenya, 1 million new students entered classrooms immediately after the policy was introduced in 2003.
Grant said local Malawian news reports have aired rumors that the government will revoke the free-education policy. Reimposing school fees could have a few positive consequences, she said: “By getting more kids out of school, you’d increase quality in a perverse way.” But the benefits of even the most basic schooling can’t be entirely wiped out by poor implementation. Free schooling offers an immediate opportunity for girls who are often under-prioritized in the fight for access to education and a step toward closing the gender gap—so long as there’s foresight in such ambitious plans.
“The experiences of young women in Malawi serve as a harbinger of the demographic consequences of the campaign for education for all in deeply resource-constrained systems,” Grant writes in the study.