Bangladesh’s investment in girls’ education pays off

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Stipend program increases secondary-level school enrolment, women employment and deters early marriages; model replicated in Pakistan, Rwanda and Ghana  

An investment plan on girls’ education that Bangladesh conceived nearly three decades ago has paid off enormously – not only in increasing female enrolment but also in deterring early marriage.  

A recent study that used four rounds of surveys on over 1,700 households over a span of 26 years, has come up with findings that the stipend introduced for secondary-level girl students in Bangladesh has improved education outcomes in the short run.

More importantly, in the long run, the Female Secondary Stipend and Assistance Program (FSSAP) has been successful in delaying marriage, increasing the probability of self-employment and non-farm employment among employed women, and increasing the probability of their marrying men who are more educated and employed. 

Bangladesh’s secondary school girls’ stipend program has also been successful in enhancing contraceptive use, reducing fertility and increasing preference for daughters, finds the study. 

“A conservative estimate shows that the development benefits of the stipend program outweigh its cost by more than 200%,” Hussain Samad, one of the coauthors of the study publication, told Dhaka Tribune on Thursday.  

The study has been carried out by Shahidur Rahman Khandker, a former lead economist in the Development Research Group of the World Bank; Hussain Samad, a consultant at the Asian Development Bank (ADB); Ryotaro Hayashi, an ADB economist; and Prof Nobuhiko Fuwa of the University of Tokyo.

Bangladesh introduced the stipend in 1994 with the support of development partners to increase female secondary school enrolment. All subsequent governments have continued and further expanded the program, resulting in girls’ enrolment now surpassing that of boys at the secondary level.

“Truly it can be said that Bangladesh has done much better than other countries in South Asia in enrolling girl students basically at secondary level through implementing the nationwide female stipend programs. Now the government is targeting addressing the very poor boys and girls for ensuring access in secondary education,” reads a DSHE web post. 

After Bangladesh pioneered the large-scale female-targeted conditional cash transfers, it was replicated in Pakistan and some African countries, such as Rwanda and Ghana. The program achieved success well beyond its aims through modest financial support for education.

It introduced a uniform stipend and tuition subsidy program for each girl attending a secondary school in rural areas if certain conditions were met: attend 75% of school days; attain some level of measured academic proficiency (45% in class-level test scores); and remain unmarried until completion of secondary school.

Over the years, it contributed on multiple fronts to women’s welfare—schooling attainment, employment, selection of spouse and reproductive behaviour.

The study mentioned that the adult literacy rate for women was only 26% in 1991, compared to 44% for men. But the situation has improved over time: in 2001, the adult literacy rate was 41% among women and 54% among men. In addition, gender disparity in school enrolment, in particular at the secondary level, has substantially declined or reversed in recent years: in 1998, enrolment was 43% for males and 41% for females at the secondary level. Those figures improved to 61% (male) and 72% (female) in 2018.

Increased educational attainment for girls has been shown to be strongly associated with delayed marriage and reduced fertility and positive inter-generational spillovers through greater human capital investments in children. The effects are more pronounced for secondary than primary education, the study noted.     

Over the years, the combined stipend and tuition subsidy for each girl was, on average, Tk906 for non-government schools and Tk847 for government schools. The stipend itself accounted for two-thirds of the total outlay used to support the program. This program supported over two million girls each year.  

The study noted, both school enrolment and attainment of the secondary-level girls exceeded that of boys in the years following the introduction of the stipend. In addition, women’s age at first marriage has risen by a full year since FSSAP was introduced. 

These study results come at a time when Unesco estimates that more than half of the world’s students are struggling to learn due to full or partial school closures. It was feared that 11 million girls might not return to school in 2020 and 2021, and school closures increase risks for girls on multiple levels. As happened in other pandemics, a sharp fall in household income may force girls to drop out of schools for domestic work. 

As countries around the world struggle to bring students back into schools, Bangladesh’s success in  keeping girls enrolled can provide useful insights to educators and policymakers. 

Source: Dhaka Tribune



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