The Population Council’s Girl Innovation Research and Learning Center (GIRL Center) published two new studies on global girls’ education, which challenge the long-held assumption that simply enrolling girls in school is sufficient to improve their health and well-being over the course of their lives.

Today more girls are in school globally than ever before and in the last five years girls and boys around the world are equally likely to be enrolled in primary school. However, research from the GIRL Center, a collaborative global research hub dedicated to generating, synthesizing, and translating evidence to transform the lives of adolescent girls worldwide, shows that even when girls are in school, they may not be learning and, in fact, may be losing the skills they gain in school after they have a child.

In one article, “The effects of adolescent childbearing on literacy and numeracy in Bangladesh, Malawi, and Zambia,” published in the October 2019 issue of Demography, GIRL Center researchers addressed the largely overlooked question of what happens to girls’ literacy and numeracy skills when they leave school and have their first baby.

This is the first study to examine the effects of adolescent childbearing on academic skills in low- and middle-income countries. They found that girls with less than a primary school education quickly lose those vital skills, which are a central component of strategies to improve their health and economic productivity, following childbirth.

This study shows that schooling on its own, especially when young people are not learning, may not be enough to overcome the potential longer-term negative impact of adolescent childbearing on women and their families. Even after young women leave school and become mothers, greater investment in strengthening their academic skills may be required to achieve the promise of expanded education for girls and women.

A second paper by GIRL Center researchers, “Causal effects of education on sexual and reproductive health in low- and middle-income countries: A systematic review and meta-analysis,” published in Social Science and Medicine—Population Health, addressed another critical issue for girls: the relationship between education and girls’ sexual and reproductive health.

This systematic review examined the links between girls’ education and sexual and reproductive health outcomes. Contrary to the assumptions underlying many efforts to improve girls’ health, however, the analysis found mixed results. While the authors did find support for a small effect of grade attainment on fertility and HIV status, they found no effect (despite plenty of research) on contraceptive use, age at marriage, or age at first birth, contrary to widespread assumptions about these relationships. The authors also found no evidence—not a single study—of the effects of literacy or numeracy on sexual and reproductive health. The authors call for more research on the effects of literacy and numeracy on health for adolescents, as well as to clarify the circumstances in which education is most likely to translate into improved health.

Learn more about the GIRL Center.