By Parnian Abunasr-Shiraz
Today, adolescent girls in low- and middle-income countries, as defined by the World Bank, continue to be denied equal access to education. The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that around the world, “132 million girls are out of school, including 34.3 million of primary-school age, 30 million of lower-secondary-school age and 67.4 million of upper-secondary-school age.” The barrier to education for girls is often a result of poverty, child marriage and gender inequality. When girls are kept out of school, they are more likely to bear children at a younger age, increasing their total fertility rate and causing long-term population growth. By examining cases in low- and middle-income countries, it is evident that girls’ low access to education is tied to high female fertility rates and population growth. Ultimately, investing in girls’ education offers a transformative development strategy that allows girls to attain their education, have children at a later age and enter the labor force while accomplishing the goal of lower fertility and population growth.
Globally, girls’ access to education faces multiple barriers, including poverty, gender inequality and child marriage. According to the World Bank, poverty is one of the most critical factors determining a girls’ educational access and completion. Often, poor households cannot afford schooling, may choose to invest in boys’ education and rely on girls to help care for the household. A child’s gender also determines educational access, as millions of primary-school-age girls will never enter a classroom, and millions more are out of school due to repressive gender roles and inequality. Further, countries in the African region, for example, report the world’s highest levels of child marriage, forcing girls out of school prematurely and into having children earlier. While poverty, gender inequality and child marriage contribute to girls’ low educational attainment, investing in girls’ education in low- and middle-income countries can reduce poverty and increase women’s reproductive agency with lower total fertility rates and decreased population growth.
Scholars have long recognized the direct effect of girls’ educational attainment on fertility, categorizing this relationship in several theoretical models. First, the economic theory of fertility offers a model that focuses on the high opportunity cost of childbearing. This model suggests that female educational attainment leads to higher returns in the labor market. Specifically, early childbearing and high total fertility may negatively impact women’s ability to participate in the labor market and reduce their earnings when working. However, as girls become educated, marry and bear children later, they can attain better employment opportunities, participate in the economy, and earn higher incomes. Consequently, under the economic model of fertility, girls’ education, labor market participation and higher incomes also increase economic growth.
The benefits of ensuring a secondary education for girls
Second, ideational theory explains that education may affect women’s ideas of family size and knowledge of contraceptive methods. Through school and social interactions, girls learn to challenge discriminatory gender norms in the household and increase their bargaining power in decisions that affect them the most. Specifically, women gain autonomy in fertility decision-making and the use of contraceptive methods because they are more educated on child health, prenatal care and the opportunity costs of childbearing at a young age. Furthermore, as girls stay in school to attain higher levels of education, they are less likely to marry young and more likely to delay childbearing to have smaller families and healthier children. Together, the economic and ideational theories show that girls’ educational attainment correlates with childbearing and lower total fertility.
The potential reduction in total fertility by education level
In a 2018 study, researchers looked at 18 low- and middle-income countries and examined women’s expected total fertility under better educational outcomes. They found that increased educational attainment and years in school significantly reduced total fertility in almost all countries. For example, completing secondary education or higher education significantly reduced total fertility by 23.5% and 32.1%, respectively, in nearly all 18 countries. However, completing primary education was only statistically significant for seven of the studied countries, with an average 7.1% decrease in the number of live births per woman. These results indicate that girls who do not complete their primary education are less likely to reduce their total fertility significantly. Moreover, educational attainment showed a decrease of 0.30 children per woman after completing primary school and 1.26 children per woman after completing secondary school in 17 of the studied countries. Evidently, girls’ lack of access to education and longer attainment has negative consequences: bearing children at a younger age and higher fertility rates with less economic opportunities and limited reproductive freedom.
The impact of educational attainment on women’s total fertility
As low- and middle-income countries implement long-term policies to increase girls’ education, countries will see a rise in educated women and economic growth alongside a decline in total fertility rates and population growth. To change the future, access to education for girls needs to become a strategic development priority in low- and middle-income countries. Investments in girl’s education ensure women and girls have the autonomy to make their own economic and reproductive decisions, have fewer and healthier children, participate in the labor market and live more prosperous lives.