FEW tasks in developing countries are as tricky—or as important—as convincing parents to keep their daughters in school longer. One way of doing so is to make contraceptives available, concludes a new working paper by Kimberly Singer Babiarz at Stanford University and four other researchers.
Conducted in Malaysia, the study used a happy coincidence of surveys going back decades and family-planning programmes rolled out in a way that made it possible to measure their effect. Starting in the 1960s, these programmes were introduced in some areas a few years earlier than in others. So researchers could compare what happened to girls in areas where contraceptives became available when they were very young with girls from the same cohorts in areas with no contraceptives.
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The girls in places with contraceptives stayed in school six months longer, or about a year longer if they were born after the programmes began. Similar effects have been seen in developing countries that have specifically aimed to increase school attendance. But no big changes in school policies accompanied the family-planning programmes. Nor was the extra schooling because these girls had fewer younger siblings. So the boost in school attendance seems linked to the availability of contraception—for some reason it may have made parents see the benefits of education.
They are considerable. When these girls reached adulthood, their jobs were much more likely to be paid than those of women who grew up in other areas. They were also more likely to have taken their elderly parents in, but not their in-laws—a sign that they probably had a greater say over family decisions.
All in all, the study suggests that the benefits of contraceptives in poor countries may be larger than thought. A lesson for policy wonks is that it pays to cast a wide net for side-effects when trying to work out whether something works.