December 17, 2019—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, new 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.

“If we’re serious about making a real difference in girls’ lives, we need to address what these studies are showing us, which is that we need to do more than make sure girls are going to school,” said Ann Blanc, vice president of Social and Behavioral Science Research at the Population Council.  “We need to make sure adolescent girls are actually learning the skills they need to find employment and have real economic opportunities when they leave school.”

In “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 important 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 recent 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 the August issue of Social Science and Medicine – Population Health, addressed another critical issue for girls: the relationship between education and girls’ sexual and reproductive health in low- and middle-income countries.

This systematic review examined the links between girls’ education and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) 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, counter 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.

“These studies are a reflection of the GIRL Center at its best: working to produce and disseminate the high-quality evidence that helps policymakers, program implementers and donors focus on what is needed to make real and demonstrable differences in the lives of girls,” said GIRL Center Director, Stephanie Psaki. “The GIRL Center is committed to continuing to address the knowledge gaps, confront tough questions, promote fresh thinking and support rigorous, evidence-based dialogues about what works for girls.”

In 2020, the GIRL Center will release a comprehensive five-year research agenda exploring some of the most pressing issues facing adolescent girls around the world, including education, mental health and well-being and other themes.

The GIRL Center has been made possible through the generosity of individuals supporting the Mark A. Walker Fellowship Program as well as funding from the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and Hewlett Foundation, Echidna Giving, and other foundations and individuals.

Learn more about the GIRL Center.