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How to Change the World

Building Capacity for Girls and Women: Examples of Effective Change

Michael Maxey


What do we know?  


As demonstrated by numerous studies, building capacity for women and girls is critical to social and economic development.(i) It has been shown that every additional year of education for girls provides a significant reduction in infant mortality and increased economic earning power for the family while the failure to educate girls limits economic growth and diminishes a country’s human capital. In the same vein, empowering women to control their fertility and limit family size improves education outcomes for girls, increases family income, and decreases infant and child mortality. Examples of the impact of this strategic approach are: (1) Delhi India study published by Robert Jensen of the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT on the impact of employment policies that favor women;(ii); (2) a study in Peru also by the Poverty Action Lab that indicated that increasing the negotiating strength of a wife with her husband is the most important factor to limiting family size; and (3) various studies cited in "Empowering Young Women" indicate that primary education of girls is an effective strategy in Ghana to reduce teenage child-bearing and child labor.(iii)


Why does it matter?


Surveys indicate that women want to have less children while men see a greater benefit in a large family. In situations where the woman has a stronger negotiating position (she has equal title to land or house with the man) or there is a greater cost to the man to leave the marriage, the number of children decrease.(iv) A study in Peru where fertility was measured in families receiving land titles under a titling program in which it was required that both the man and the woman had to be listed on the title. Birth rates decreased significantly in those instances of titled couples compared to a control group where titles were not provided. In India, greater employment opportunities for girls resulted in dramatic gains in outcomes for girls and women with school enrollment increasing significantly, nutrition improving, and girls having fewer childhood pregnancies. When girls can be more productive, the workforce is enhanced. As indicated by MIT Poverty Lab trials in Ghana, keeping girls in primary education has a positive causal effect on wages, sexual behavior, fertility and infant mortality.(v)


What can we do about it?


Something as simple as informing girls and their parents of the economic returns to education can increase attendance and reduce dropout rates. Conditional cash transfers even small amounts can boost education, reduce child labor, and increase post-secondary matriculation. Providing greater economic opportunity for girls increases investment in education of girls, and changing expectations highlighting the promise of great economic return increases these types of investments. Critical as well is supporting what Martha Nussbaum posits is the basis of human dignity: finding ways for women to realize their full potential and exercise their humanity. Creating awareness through social entrepreneurship that uses all the social and economic forces to create opportunities for women is critical. Where these types of activities have been implemented, positive change has occurred in India, Peru and Ghana. We understand the key role that culture, education and public policy play in empowering women, we need to have an expansion of these programs on global basis to leverage greater social and economic development.


(i) Empowering Young Women,


(ii) Making Room for Girls,


iii) Empowering Young Women,


(iv) Policy Can Bridge Gender Gap,


(v) Women's Economic Empowerment,



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