The remarkable impact of secondary education on women’s health

For the first time, there is strong evidence to support the claim that girls education is a great investment. But it goes further than that. Secondary education might be the best way to improve the health of both mothers and their children.

These conclusions are supported by two recent studies, one from Zimbabwe and another from Los Angeles. In the case of Zimbabwe, the sudden access to secondary education in 1980 decreased the probability of a child dying by roughly 20% for each additional year of schooling. Allowing girls to stay in school saved lives.

The second study on charter and public schools in Los Angeles found students from low-income neighborhoods who attend high-performing charter schools experienced some important health gains. The students in the charter schools were less likely to engage in unprotected sex and engage in risky health behaviors, as compared to the students in district schools. However, there was no significant difference in tobacco, drug and alcohol use between the schools.

It is not a new idea. Nor is it controversial. Investing in education is good for a country and its citizens. This is exemplified by the fact that governments everywhere spend significant parts of their budgets on public education.

The idea continues that education is a particularly powerful tool for the marginalized. It can transform the lives of the poor and decrease the gender gap. The idea behind the Girl Effect, a popular video from a few years ago, starts with the premise that girls who can stay in school and receive education can lead longer, healthier and more successful lives. These benefits then trickle down to the next generation and onward.

What the studies show together is that investing in education is an important first step in improving health. Improving the quality of schools can take those benefits even further. What is in common between the two is that staying in school may be the leading reason for seeing health improve. Importantly, the studies prove that investments cannot stop at primary education. There are massive benefits for putting money and support behind secondary schools.

“Educating girls could have a huge impact on child mortality in the next decade, if we are able to make that transition to get girls into secondary school,” said Karen Grépin, Assistant Professor of Global Health Policy at NYU’s Wagner School, to Humanosphere.

Grépin and University of California, San Diego economist Prashant Bharadwaj looked at the differences in child mortality rates for mothers in Zimbabwe. A natural experiment emerged when the country gained independence and President Robert Mugabe extended access to secondary education across the country in 1980.

Grépin and Bharadwaj discovered a stark difference in enrollment rates between girls who were younger and older than fifteen years old in 1980. Older girls tended to not continue with their schooling. The policy came too late. Meanwhile, younger girls did continue on to secondary school at much higher rates. This natural division allowed the researchers to compare what happened to the groups.

The results were stark. Child mortality suddenly dropped for the younger girls. Going to school longer had a massive impact. Grépin and Bharadwaj attribute a 30% decline in child mortality due to access to secondary education.

The time in school, as opposed to the education, is what seems to be behind the change. There was no evidence that child care had changed in any meaningful way. What did appear to change was when the girls would have their first child.

Child mortality Zimbabwe“What seems to matter the most is first birth and pushing back fertility during those critical years,” said Grépin. “Pushing that first birth back by a couple of years can have a huge impact on child mortality.”

The Millennium Development Goals on education have succeeded in getting girls into primary schools. Grépin says it is a laudable achievement, but more needs to be done in the goals that will follow in 2015. Keeping girls in school through high school protect both their lives and the lives of their future children. When it comes to public health, it is hard to find a solution that has a greater impact on child health. It might be time to add secondary education to the list of global health ‘best buys.’

“In a year or so we will have more evidence on this, but we have the potential that what people have been saying about maternal education is true,” said Grépin.

“This ranks up there with vaccinating children and anti-malaria bed nets.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a Maine-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.