Education of women and socio-economic developmentReason and Revelation: Studies in the Babi and Baha'i Religions, volume 13
Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 2002
Abstract: This paper presents the findings of some recent research on the social and the economic benefits of female education and considers the pathways through which women's schooling leads to social gains. These findings may provide insights as to why Bahá'u'lláh stressed the importance of women's education.
In the Bahá'í teachings there are two extraordinary statements about the education of women. First, that women's education is of greater importance than men's education and, secondly, that not until the equality of opportunity in education for the two sexes is established will the foundations of war be removed.(1) These challenging ideas deserve study in order for us to understand their meaning and ramifications.
The principle of sexual equality in education - one facet of the general principle of the equality of the sexes - was revolutionary when given by Bahá'u'lláh in the mid 1800s.(2) It was set forth more than half a century before western thought added sexual equality to its list of rationally-based moral principles of relevance to political life, such as democracy, secularism, and the rights of the individual, and long before it became enshrined in numerous national and international documents as a politically correct, universal value.
The signs of the rapid convergence between the ideas of the secular world and the teachings of the Bahá'í Faith are abundant. In the political and economic spheres, for example, this is conspicuous presently in the enthusiasm for global governance among thinkers, academics, and international institutions.(3) It can also be seen in the acceptance, among many influential opinion-makers, of the need for a world currency and for international economic policy coordination.(4) Many other ideas and institutions prescribed by Bahá'u'lláh in the last century have been embraced by the world in the past few decades. The recognition of the wisdom of the Bahá'í emphasis on women's education is a recent addition to the list of areas of convergence.
The most dramatic and telling statistic of women's status is the sex-ratio in the population, that is, the number of females per 100 males. It is a well-known fact that life-expectancy at birth favours females. This appears to be a biological constant. Yet, the proportion of females to males varies greatly across different regions of the world. For example, the proportion of females is 52.5% in the industrialised world but in sub-Saharan Africa women account for only 51% of the population. The figures are 48% of the population in East Asia and less than 47% in South Asia. From figures such as these, economist Amartya Sen(6) has estimated that there are 100 million women "missing" in the world. Sen describes the fate of these women as "one of the more momentous problems facing the contemporary world." This is a moral as well as a development-related problem.
The overwhelming reason why 100 million women are missing in the world is excess female mortality. In the developed world, women outlive men by an average of six years; by contrast, in large parts of South Asia, men can expect to live longer than women.
Differential mortality is only the most dramatic manifestation of systematic discrimination against females. Women and girls are more likely to be impoverished than men and boys. Also, studies have found that girls are fed less than their brothers and that their illnesses are less likely to be treated. It should come as no surprise then that, in most regions of the world, female literacy and education fall far short of male literacy and education, as shown in Table 1. While poverty and cultural factors must surely influence the extent of female deprivation, they do not explain it entirely. For example, sub-Saharan Africa is one of the poorest regions of the world but the problem of excess mortality of females is much less severe there than in South Asia.
The economic and social gains from female education
If female schooling raises human capital, productivity, and economic growth as much as male schooling does, then women's disadvantage in education is economically inefficient. Research world-wide shows that, in general, the economic benefits from women's education - calculated as the economic rate of return to education - are comparable to those from men's education.(9) Thus, from the point of view of economic efficiency, the gender gap in education is undesirable.
For example, a recent study by Subbarao and Raney (1995)(12) using national aggregate data from 72 countries regressed the total fertility rate of 1985 on the male and female secondary school enrolment rates lagged by 10 years, i.e. on the enrolment rates of 1975. The objective was to examine the effect of education on fertility, controlling for a number of other factors such as family planning service provision and per capita income. The results show that female secondary school enrolment (lagged by 10 years) is inversely correlated with the total fertility rate but that male secondary school enrolment shows no strong correlation. Similarly, a regression of the 1985 infant mortality rate on 10 year lagged male and female secondary school enrolment rates shows that while female education is associated with lower infant mortality, male education has no statistically significant effect.
A similar exercise by Murthi, Guio, and Drèze(13) for India using district level aggregated data shows that whereas the district female literacy rate had a strong inverse correlation on the district average total fertility rate, on under-five child mortality rate, and on the female disadvantage in child survival, the district male literacy rate had no significant effect on each of these outcomes. Moreover, district per capita income, urbanisation, and the spread of medical facilities were not statistically significant determinants of total fertility rate. While these latter three variables do have positive effects on child survival levels, their effects were relatively small compared with the powerful effect of female literacy.
Numerous studies have been carried out using household-level data that confirm the findings from studies using aggregate data. To cite one example, an examination of the determinants of fertility in fourteen countries of sub-Saharan Africa by Ainsworth, Beegle, and Nyamete (1996)(14) using household survey data shows an inverse correlation between female schooling and fertility in virtually all of the countries, though the relationship is non-linear: female primary schooling has an inverse relation with fertility in about half of the countries only but female secondary schooling is universally associated with lower fertility, and the strength of the correlation increases with increasing years of schooling. Among ever-married women, husband's schooling has no significant relation with fertility in about one-third of the countries. Moreover, in cases where both women's and men's schooling matter, women's schooling exerts a much larger negative effect on fertility than men's schooling.
Simulations show that the benefits from expanding female education are far greater than the benefits from other public interventions such as improving family planning service provision or increasing the number of physicians in the population. For example, Subbarao and Raney (footnote 12) found that a doubling of the 1975 average secondary school enrolment ratio in the 72 sample countries from 19% to 38% would have reduced the average number of births in 1985 by 29% compared to the actual number in 1985, whereas a doubling of the family planning provision would have reduced the number of births by only 3.5%.
The gains in terms of deaths averted are also striking. Simulations predict that doubling the female secondary school enrolment ratio from 19% to 38% in 1975 reduces infant deaths in 1985 by 64% while doubling the number of physicians reduces the number of infant deaths by a mere 2.5%. Doubling per capita income (or GDP) from the average of $650 in the 72 sample countries to $1300 would have no effect on the number of infant deaths!
Subbarao and Raney also reported data on desired family size from the World Fertility Survey for 37 countries. Econometric analysis of this data suggested that after controlling for per capita income, female secondary school enrolment was a highly significant determinant of desired family size (and therefore of the total fertility rate and population growth rate). Male school enrolment ratio, however, had no impact on desired family size.
Finally, a large body of microeconomic evidence shows that increases in women's education generally lead to increases in their labour force participation as well as in their earnings.(15) Educated women's greater participation in labour market work and their higher earnings are thought to be good for their own status (economic models say "bargaining power") within the household, and are good for their children because it appears that a greater proportion of women's income than men's is spent on child goods.(16) On the down side, it may be thought that educated women's greater labour force participation takes them away from their children for longer periods of time (than is the case for uneducated or less educated women) and this may disadvantage educated women's children through neglect. At present this is a relatively unresearched issue. However, limited evidence suggests that children whose mothers work have just as good or better educational outcomes than children whose mothers do not work.
The findings in the studies cited above are corroborated by international as well as national studies, and they demonstrate the powerful role of women's agency and women's educational empowerment in reducing desired family size, fertility, population growth, child morbidity, child mortality, and gender-bias in child mortality, while at the same time showing that men's education mattered comparatively less to these important social outcomes.
Pathways through which education affects social outcomes
Economists tend to focus on the role of incentives as a way of understanding phenomena. They reason that female education lowers the fertility rate by reducing desired family size and that this, in turn, is because education raises the value of women's economic activities by raising the labour market rewards from going out of the home for work. In other words, the opportunity-cost of staying at home for child bearing and rearing increases as women become more educated and, so, educated women desire smaller families. Education may also change women's preferences about the quantity versus the quality of children, with educated women choosing fewer children but of better "quality". Moreover, as mentioned earlier, recent research suggests that a greater proportion of women's cash income than men's is spent on child goods,(17) so that women's education and the consequent increase in women's income would appear to have particular benefits for child quality.
Education of women improves child health because of educated mothers' greater knowledge of the importance of hygiene and of simple remedies. All this lowers infant mortality, which in turn means that a family does not need to have a large number of children in order to hedge against the possibility of premature death of some children. Further, it appears that education of females increases the age at marriage (or at cohabitation) and through this delay, lowers the total fertility rate, i.e. number of children ever born to a woman.(18)
Finally, some studies find that mother's education has a greater impact on the educational attainment and school achievement of children than father's education. This is plausible given the greater interaction between mother and children in most families since, in most countries, fathers are usually the main earners in the household. In this way, education of females contributes more significantly (than the education of males) to increases in human capital, productivity, and economic growth not only in their own generation but also in the next generation.
Gender equality in education: a universal value?
Indeed, the Pakistani detractors who questioned the usefulness of women's education and claimed that it had wrought family breakdown in western countries might have a valid argument. Access to education per se is not sufficient; the content of education is also important, as emphasised in the Bahá'í writings. Could recognition that content of education is fundamentally important be the next stage in the convergence of secular and Bahá'í thinking?
The way forward
These explanations of the gender disadvantage in schooling have important policy implications. First, they suggest the need for public education about the intrinsic and instrumental value of women's education. Such a policy step would aim to change conservative attitudes towards girls' schooling. Secondly, they suggest that public policy should compensate for the asymmetry in parental incentives to educate girls and boys by giving extra subsidies for girls' schooling. This makes sense because many of the benefits of girls' education are public benefits, i.e. they accrue not only to the educated individual and her family but also to society in general - for example, lower infant mortality and fertility rates. One further policy suggestion is that governments should improve the economic incentives for women's education by attempting to reduce job and wage discrimination against women in the labour market, for example, through stricter labour legislation. This would raise the economic returns to women's education. Evidence suggests that cultural inhibitions can be overcome if the labour market (i.e. economic) incentives for acquiring education are strong enough.
Summary and conclusions
The main policy prescriptions of this paper are that governments and other organisations should attempt to educate people about the equity and efficiency benefits of female education and that public policy should encourage girls' access to schooling by extra subsidies in order to compensate for the asymmetry in parental incentives to educate sons and daughters in poor societies. I have also argued that education per se is not sufficient. It is clear that societies which have achieved universal education are currently extremely deficient socially despite their economic prosperity. The next step in the evolution of secular thinking will, it is hoped, be in the important area of the content of education.