Bangladesh not only kept girls in school but improved their lives on multiple levels with a simple, low-cost stipend program. It offers valuable insights for school systems around the world struggling with the pandemic.
In 1994, Bangladesh pioneered large-scale female-targeted conditional cash transfers, which was replicated in Pakistan and some sub-Saharan African countries, such as Rwanda and Ghana.The programme achieved success well beyond its aims through modest financial support for education.
The program 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 percent of school days; attain some level of measured academic proficiency (45 percent in class-level test scores); and remain unmarried until completion of secondary school.
The development benefits of the stipend program outweighed its cost by more than double. Over the years, it contributed on multiple fronts to women’s welfare—schooling attainment, employment, selection of spouse and reproductive behavior.
The gender disparity in school enrollment at the secondary level not only declined but also reversed over time after introduction of the program. Rigorous data analysis shows that the program raised women’s grade completion by 3.2 years, the secondary completion rate by as much as 5 percentage points, and delayed marriage by 3.2 years.
After leaving school, stipend recipients were more likely to be self-employed or employed in the nonfarm sector than women who did not receive a stipend. Moreover, contraceptive prevalence rate was 24 percentage points higher and total fertility 0.76-point lower.
The husbands of the stipend recipients were found to be more educated and employed more in the nonfarm sector than those of the comparator women without the stipend. Furthermore, the stipend program created a shift in the social norms—it raised the preference for daughters among the program participants (by 0.22 point), accompanied by a drop in the preference for sons.What’s more, the benefits of the stipend program were not limited to recipients alone. Brothers of stipend recipients seem also to have improved educational attainment, implying a positive spillover effect.
Development practitioners and policymakers in other developing countries can draw valuable lessons from the success of the female secondary school stipend program, which was supported by ADB and other development partners.
Since cost is often the main barrier to girls’ schooling, countries can incorporate the design of the program into their incentive structures for improving girls’ education. Moreover, as countries contemplate alternate approaches for attaining the Sustainable Development Goals, they can learn from the insights of the program for Goal 4 (quality education) and Goal 5 (gender equality).
If an enrollment-enhancing stipend program alone can achieve so much, it is possible that interventions that address quality will have broader impacts. With this realisation, the government transitioned from the Female Secondary School Stipend Program to a few new programs, which included goals such as improving education quality, equitable access, teacher capacity, access to information and communication technology, school infrastructure, institutional capacity and transparency.
These results are particularly relevant now. UNESCO estimates that more than half of the world’s students are struggling to learn due to full or partial school closures. Eleven 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 schools for domestic work. Bangladesh’s stipend program highlights the importance of keeping adolescent girls in school.
As an integral part of its school re-opening and recovery strategy, the government could prioritise incentive measures such as stipend programs to ensure bringing girls back to school.
As countries around the world struggle to bring students back into schools, the success of Bangladesh keeping girls enrolled can provide useful insights to educators and policymakers.