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Study: In Malawi, Money in Girls’ Hands Boosts School Enrollment

  • Cash stipends to girls and parents, averaging $10 per month, reduces drop-out rates by 40 percent.
  • Sexual activity and early marriage rates among girls receiving payments also decline.
  • Twenty-nine developing countries have implemented conditional cash transfer programs to boost schooling, nutrition. The Bank supports such programs in 13 countries.

January 20, 2010 —Small stipends paid directly to teen girls have had a powerful impact on their school attendance in Malawi.

That’s among the findings from a study of a two-year cash transfer program targeting girls aged 13 to 22 that wrapped up in December 2009.

Stipends ranging from $1-$5 a month for the adolescent girls, in addition to payments to  parents that ranged from $4-$10, reduced drop-out rates by approximately 40 percent.

And, for every extra dollar a girl received above $1, “enrollment increased by a percentage point,” says Berk Özler, a senior economist with the World Bank’s Development Research Group.

Özler and fellow researchers Sarah Baird of The George Washington University and Craig McIntosh of the University of California, San Diego, wanted to test the best way to use cash payments known as conditional cash transfers (CCTs) to boost school enrollment among young women in sub-Saharan Africa.

Drop-out rates are high among teenage girls in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Africa. One of the main reasons is the relatively high cost of secondary school. Another is that Malawian girls tend to marry at a young age, and “once a girl is married, schooling is over,” says Özler.

Keeping girls in school who otherwise would have dropped out may not only increase learning, but delay marriage and reduce the rate of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV. In another paper, researchers found that the onset of sexual activity was significantly delayed among girls who took part in the program, and their likelihood of having gotten married or pregnant after one year had declined.

Past studies have suggested that “just the fact of being in school may lead to these desirable outcomes but the evidence was scant,” Özler says.

Cash Transfers Boost Schooling, Nutrition

In countries without adequate safety net support, children’s nutrition often suffers, and children, especially girls, are taken out of school.

In an attempt to counteract this trend, some 29 developing countries have put in place  some type of CCT program to boost schooling and nutrition, with many others planning on piloting one.

The World Bank backs CCT programs in 13 countries. It provided $2.4 billion to such initiatives in FY09 during the global economic crisis.

Studies have found that cash payments to the female head of household leads to better outcomes for children and families. In Brazil, for instance, the chance of childhood survival increases by 20 percent.

But the effect of cash payments made directly to girls versus parents had not been studied until now.

In Malawi, Support to Girls ‘Makes Sense’

In Malawi, the researchers wanted to find out whether the monetary amount of the cash transfer would make a difference, and whether making the payment conditional on school attendance would have an additional impact. They also wanted to test whether making payments directly to girls would affect the outcome.

The study involved a sample of 3,805 girls and young women aged 13 to 22 in 176 urban and rural areas in Zomba, a highly populated district with high dropout rates and low educational attainment. According to a 2005 government survey, children drop out of school mainly due to financial hardship.

Of these girls, a randomly selected group of 1,225 were either offered stipends on the condition they attend school 80 percent of the time, or offered the same stipends unconditionally. The rest did not receive any offers and served as the comparison group for the study.

Girls getting the monthly stipend participated in a lottery where they picked a bottle cap out of an envelope to win an amount between $1 and $5 a month. Guardians were also randomly assigned a separate amount ranging from $4 to $10 a month. On average, girls received $3 and their parents $7, meaning that cash payments to both girls and guardians totaled an average of $10 a month, but ranged from $5-$15.

Each household received an informational sheet detailing the amounts and conditions of the offer, if there were any, and the contract was signed by the girl and her guardian.

Özler says that the condition to attend school at least 80 percent of the time did not seem to make a difference to schooling outcomes in Malawi, nor did increased total cash payments above the minimum of $5 per month. That’s in contrast to the CCT experience in Latin America, where the condition to attend school has been key to the program’s success.

The girls, however, were demonstrably motivated by their stipends, which they mostly spent on personal items such as clothing.

“The study was successful in getting dropouts to come back to school and in keeping girls in school. Maybe it makes sense to directly support adolescent girls,” says Özler.

The researchers are now conducting follow-up tests and surveys in Malawi to assess, among other things, the impact of the program on math and reading skills.

The study was funded by the Global Development Network; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; the World Bank’s Gender Action Plan, Knowledge for Change Trust Fund, World Development Report 2007 Small Grants Fund, Spanish Impact Evaluation Fund, and Research Group; and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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