Child Marriage, Education, and Agency in Uganda Feminist Economics

Feminist Economics

Quentin Wodon, Minh Cong Nguyen, and Clarence Tsimpo

Child marriage is defined internationally as a legal or customary union involving a boy or girl under 18 years of age. The practice remains highly prevalent for girls today in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and it has large negative impacts for education attainment and literacy. The central question Quentin Wodon, Minh Cong Nguyen, and Clarence Tsimpo consider is: what is the impact of child marriage (and to some extent early pregnancy as well) on secondary school enrollment and completion in the context of Uganda? This impact is not straightforward to estimate because the decisions by a girl (or her parents) to marry early and possibly drop out of school are jointly determined.

Methodology. Two main approaches have been used in the literature to assess the impact of child marriage on education attainment. One approach relies on reasons mentioned by parents (or sometimes school principals) in household surveys as to why children have dropped out of school. The other approach relies on regression techniques, ideally with appropriate instrumental variables that help to explain the decision to marry but do not affect education outcomes conditionally on getting married. The use of instrumental variables helps in dealing with endogeneity issues arising from the fact that the decisions to marry and to drop out of school may be jointly made.

Wodon, Nguyen, and Tsimpo combine both approaches with in addition qualitative data to better understand the context in which marriage and schooling decisions are made in Uganda. Specifically, their analysis relies on four different data sources: 1) qualitative evidence on differences in community and parental preferences for the education of boys and girls and on the higher likelihood for girls to drop out of school in comparison to boys; 2) reasons declared by parents as to why their children have dropped out of school; 3) reasons declared by secondary school principals as to why students drop out; and 4) econometric estimation of the impact of child marriage on secondary school enrollment and completion. Together, the four approaches provide strong evidence that child marriage reduces secondary school enrollment and completion for girls.

Key findings. Using the 2011 Demographic and Healthy Survey for Uganda, Wodon, Nguyen, and Tsimpo find that women between ages 25–34 who married as children have a lower probability of having completed secondary school. After controlling for socioeconomic and other characteristics, econometric estimates of the effect of child marriage on secondary school completion remain large and statistically significant. For example, marrying at age 17 reduces the probability of secondary school completion by 12.4 percentage points versus marrying at age 18 or later. Perceptions data from both parents and school principals available in other national surveys for Uganda also suggest that child marriage and pregnancies are key factors leading to lower education attainment for girls. For example, marriage and early pregnancies are perceived by more than two thirds of principals as the main reasons for girls to drop out of secondary school. Finally, qualitative data point to differences in support for girls’ education depending on the community in which girls live. In some communities, parents are as supportive of girls’ education as is the case for boys, but in other communities, this is not the case. This support, or lack thereof, is related to complex local patterns of gender roles and agency.

Policy implications. Wodon, Nguyen, and Tsimpo conclude that there is strong evidence that the impact of child marriage (and early pregnancy) on secondary school enrollment and completion is large in Uganda. This in turn has implications for agency later in life. While one should be careful not to generalize in a simplistic way from Uganda to Sub-Saharan Africa or developing countries as a whole, this study and the broader literature call for stronger interventions to delay the age of marriage and help girls remain in school.

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