Education gap widens among adolescent boys and girls in low-income countries when younger siblings home sick

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Secondary school girls responding to a speech at Jamhuri High School in Nairobi, Kenya. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Fewer girls in low-and-middle-income countries finish secondary school, resulting in poorer health and economic outcomes for their own children — and perpetuating the vicious cycle of gender inequality worldwide.

According to The World Bank, in Sub-Saharan and South Asia, boys are 1.5 times more likely to complete secondary education than girls. Many are forced to stay at home and help their mothers with housework and childcare, particularly if a younger sibling is sick.

Yet the potential gains from increased participation of women in the global workforce over the next decade are estimated at $12 trillion. Studies show that women’s equal participation in the workforce could boost some countries’ GDP by up to 20 percent.

Stanford Health Policy’s Marcella Alsan, a physician and economist, argues in a new study in the journal Pediatrics, that identifying contributors to education disparities and making investments in early childhood health could significantly advance global health and development.

“There are so many advantages to girls staying in school,” Alsan, an assistant professor of medicine at Stanford Medicine, said in an interview. “For one thing, the longer they’re in school, the less likely they are to become young mothers or contract HIV. And the more educated the mother, their own children have better chances of survival.”

So what are some of the biggest barriers to girls completing secondary school in less developed countries?

Alsan and her co-authors found the gender gap is compounded by illness among young children in the household since adolescent girls are often tasked with childcare and domestic chores. The problem is exacerbated if the mother works outside the household.

Follow the Numbers

Along with SHP research data analyst Anlu Xing, Alsan and her team used Demographic and Health Surveys on 41,821 households in 38 low-and-middle-income countries. The surveys asked about illnesses in children under 5 in the last two weeks, and then asked the adolescent boys and girls if they had been in school in the same period.

As expected, more girls remained at home than boys. When no young children in the household are ill, adolescent girls are on average 6 percent less likely to attend school than adolescent boys within the same household.

But the gap increases to 7.8 percent if the household reports one illness episode among an under-5 child, and up to 8.5 percent if there are two or more episodes of illness.

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In other words, the authors write, “The gender gap in adolescent school attendance increased by around 50 percent when young children in the household became ill.”

The education gap between adolescent boys and girls jumps to 10.06 percent if the younger child has two or more episodes of illness — and the mother is working outside the home or in the fields.

“Policies that strengthen family and community supports for challenges such as sick child care will prove essential,” the authors write, “particularly as women move increasingly into the workforce outside the home.”

Alsan’s co-authors are Eran Bendavid, assistant professor of medicine and core faculty member at Stanford Health Policy; Gary Darmstadt, a professor of pediatrics and associate dean for maternal and child health at Stanford Medicine; and Paul Wise, another core faculty member at SHP and professor of pediatrics.

Vaccines Also Key

Alsan and her team also examined data on the gender gap in adolescent education in association with national vaccine rates, using the same country-year surveys.

They found that in countries where about 70 percent of all the boys and girls had the same series of eight vaccines — including polio, diphtheria, tetanus and measles — the gender gap in education approaches zero.

“We hypothesize that countries with high rates of childhood vaccination will experience lower rates of young child illness, thereby decreasing the need for adolescent girls’ to devote time to caring for sick children,” the authors write.

Given the long-term benefits of secondary school for women’s health and economic outcomes, the authors believe their study underscores the societal benefits of keeping girls in school. A combination of vaccines and early childhood interventions to keep toddlers healthy and their older sisters in school are paramount.

“The international community agrees that educating girls through secondary school has plenty of societal benefits — we show that health interventions targeting young kids are an important way to do just that,” says Alsan. “Not only the targeted little kids benefit but also their older sisters — a double dividend.”