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Family planning in low-income countries helps girls stay in school

Research by SIEPR’s Grant Miller focused on girls in Malaysia, one of the first low-income countries to provide modern contraceptives on a large scale.

Family planning programs in developing countries that offer contraceptives and reproductive health advice apparently do more than prevent pregnancies — they can keep girls in primary school for up to a year longer, even before the youngsters start to think about marriage and babies.

malaysian schoolgirls
Indian, Malay, and Chinese school girls learn side by side in the Wisma Dharma Candra school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

New research by SIEPR Senior Fellow Grant Miller and Kim Singer Babiarz indicates that the availability of modern contraceptives alone can keep young girls in the classroom longer, likely because their parents develop greater expectations for their daughters’ long-term health outcomes and economic opportunities.

“What we find is that family planning exposure at a young age is linked to greater opportunities later in life – including economic empowerment,” said Babiarz, a Stanford Health Policy research scholar with a PhD in agricultural economics who focuses on women and children in development. “The fertility effects were modest; the most striking findings were the incentives created to keep girls in school and improvements in the types of jobs women have later in life.”

Babiarz and Miller, who directs the Stanford Center on Global Poverty and Development and is also a Stanford Health Policy core faculty member, unveiled their study at the annual meeting of the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 7.

They conducted research with Christine Valente, an associate professor in the department of economics at the University of Bristol and Tey Nai Peng, the principal investigator for the Malaysia Family Life Survey. The Southeast Asia nation was one of the first low-income countries to provide modern contraceptives on a large scale, first in 1954 and then establishing a National Family Planning Board in 1966.

The government then scaled up its national program between 1966 and 1974 and conducted robust surveys with retrospective life histories and detailed community-level information about the timing of family planning availability. The use of contraceptives such as the pill, condoms and IUDs, went from 3 percent in 1961 to 39 percent in 1975. The country also experienced a decrease in the fertility rate of 6.2 children to 4.3 during the same period.

The researchers were able to compare what happened to Malaysian girls who were very young when contraceptives became available in their communities to those who were adolescents when they first gained access to modern contraception. They were not surprised by the effects on fertility; that has generally been the case in countries that adopt large-scale family planning programs.

But they also found unintended incentives: that girls in communities with family planning clinics stayed in school six months longer, increasing to more than an additional year for the girls who were born after the family planning programs began. And it didn’t matter if the girls had fewer younger siblings at home.

Other benefits later in life included better jobs when they became adults. When the Malaysian girls were grown, they were more likely to take in their own elderly parents (relative to their husbands’ parents), a signal of increased status in their households. In fact, they found that the incentives for investing in girls created by family planning may actually outweigh its direct effects, which work through reductions in fertility and changes in birth timing.

“The existence of family planning and contraceptives may lead parents to believe their daughters can participate in the labor force and that more schooling will therefore benefit them,” Miller said. “In other words, it can change their expectations about the world their daughter will live in one day.”

Few studies explicitly distinguish the incentive effects of family planning on women’s education from its direct effects on fertility. Miller said he hoped the new findings might lead policymakers to consider the broader beneficial consequences of family planning beyond those that work directly through changes in pregnancy and fertility.

“A central contribution of this working paper is that it studies the possible incentive effects of family planning programs for human capital investment in girls,” the authors wrote,” which could then translate into improvements in women’s economic status throughout their lives.”

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