Malawi Schooling and Adolescent Study

The Population Council is identifying the elements of formal schooling that lead to more protective behaviors, reduce HIV risk, and improve learning outcomes among poor young people in Malawi.

The Issue

When good-quality schooling is available, disadvantaged children stand a better chance of escaping poverty. Indeed, it is likely in the poorest countries that schooling makes the greatest contribution to children’s futures.

But in Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, nearly half of girls marry before age 18, and young people face high risk of HIV infection. Schools in rural Malawi have limited resources and inadequate supplies, extremely high student-teacher ratios, and a dearth of trained teachers.

The Progress

To better understand the effect of school quality on learning and health, the Council began following the progress of more than 2,500 in-school and out-of-school adolescents in the Balaka and Machinga districts of Malawi in 2007. Multiple rounds of data on young people’s schooling experiences, learning, and health outcomes have been collected. Longitudinal studies of this duration and breadth are unusual, and such comprehensive data on young people from a developing country are rare.

With each round of data collection, participants are asked a series of questions about their experiences in school, including attendance, grade repetition, classroom environment, and educational attainment. The participants complete a literacy and numeracy test to assess their learning. In 2010, 2011, and 2013, the data collection expanded to include testing, with consent from participants and their parents, for exposure to HIV and herpes.

The Impact

The study’s longitudinal design, encompassing repeated assessments of the schooling environment and yearly follow-up of a sample of in- and out-of-school adolescents, permits the direct comparison of outcomes and experiences reported over time. This information provides a uniquely rich and broad picture of the relationships between schooling, educational outcomes, and HIV risk among young people in Malawi. Council findings will inform policy recommendations and program designs for school and community-based interventions that reduce HIV risk and improve student learning.

Key findings thus far:

  • On-target progression through school is associated with a lower risk of early premarital sex and marriage for girls. However, it is common for students to start their schooling late, repeat grades, and withdraw temporarily or permanently. Nearly 25 percent of girls’ dropout is related to pregnancy.
  • Many girls who leave school face a rapid loss of both literacy and numeracy skills. Further, because girls leave school during adolescence at much higher rates than boys, over time we observe a gender reversal in literacy outcomes and a widening gender gap in numeracy outcomes, both in favor of boys.
  • Girls who can read and those who can do math are less likely to report their sexual behavior inconsistently than those without these skills.
  • Literate girls marry and have children significantly later than girls who cannot read.
  • Girls who attend school are significantly less likely to engage in premarital sex than their peers who have recently left school.
  • By Round 5 of data collection (2011), girls who were currently attending secondary school were about 60 percent less likely to test positive for herpes than girls who had dropped out before completing primary school.
  • Girls who perceive themselves to be at risk of becoming infected with HIV are more likely to marry early than girls who perceive no risk of future infection.

The Council continues to analyze this dataset to learn more about the effects of schooling and is pursuing additional funding to implement interventions to improve girls’ literacy and numeracy based on these findings.

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