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Filling the education gap in developing countries

Q&A with Marcella Alsan, an assistant professor of medicine and Stanford Health Policy core faculty member.

In low-and-middle income countries around the world, girls’ education takes a back seat to household needs. When a younger sibling is sick or the mother needs to work outside the home, girls in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are often pulled out of school, making their male counterparts 1.5 times more likely to finish their secondary education. In a new study, Marcella Alsan examined ways to decrease education disparities without creating a greater burden on families.

Why are fewer girls finishing their secondary school education in lower-to-middle-income countries?

There are many reasons, such as early marriage and financial constraints, combined with cultural expectations that see boys schooling as more important than girls’. What we focused on was the notion that girls often specialize in household tasks — so any shock to the household (such as child illness) that increases the need for care at home will negatively affect the older girls’ opportunity to attend school.

What’s wrong with girls staying home to help with the housework and young siblings?

Just like people have a limited amount of money, people have a limited amount of time. Time that girls clean, cook, fetch water and care for siblings is time that they are not at school.

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What are some of the advantages of girls staying in school as long as they can?

There’s been a lot of research showing that girls that stay in school longer delay their sexual debut, reduce their risk for HIV and other STDs, improve the quality of their partner in the marriage market and have fewer, healthier children.

The education gap widens dramatically when the mother is working outside the home or out in the fields. But the women need to work, so what can be done to help these families?

The education gap widened when child illness struck, and that was more dramatic in households where mothers worked outside the home. Again, it comes down to constraints — if the mother is out of the home, the daughter may be pulled to take her place within it. There are several potential policy mechanisms to consider, but we focused on improving child health. Early child health interventions not only improve the health of the child but may also help keep the older sister in school, according to our research. Other potential policies to consider would be childcare for working mothers or subsidies to poor families with small children. Either could help support and protect families from health shocks.