Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Women’s education: harbinger of another spring?

Cultural norms and the social environment in many Middle Eastern societies discriminate against women, limit their socio-economic opportunities and relegate them to a lower status than men. Can education bring a change? This column reports research on what happened to young women and their children when Turkey raised the period of compulsory formal schooling from five to eight years.

In a nutshell

As the proportion of women in Turkey with eight rather than five years of education grew, there was a decline in the number of pregnancies and the number of children born per ever-married woman.

As the proportion with eight years of schooling rose, so too did the proportion of women using modern family planning methods and with knowledge of their ovulation cycle.

There is little evidence that schooling changed women’s attitudes towards gender equality.

Economists argue that more educated individuals are more efficient producers of health and more educated parents are more efficient in producing healthy children. Knowledge helps parents make informed decisions about their children’s nutrition and healthcare. It influences health-related behaviours (such as smoking, drug abuse and binge drinking) and lifestyles (such as physical exercise). The health behaviour and lifestyle of parents, particularly mothers, also affects their children’s health (for example, their birth weight).

Parental education is also the most basic component of socio-economic status, which according to epidemiologists is the key determinant of an individual’s health and their children’s health (Adler and Newman, 2002).

Furthermore, education may affect attitudes towards gender equality empowering women (Mocan and Cannonier, 2012). Because mothers are often the primary caregivers for infants and young children, their empowerment is likely to channel family resources more towards the wellbeing of mothers and children.

But economists also quibble over empirical evidence to support these hypotheses. Because genetic endowments are a key determinant of a child’s health, it is challenging to provide convincing evidence that the simple association (correlation) between parental education and children’s health, documented in many studies, implies causality: that parental education improves children’s health.

Arguably, heritable ability may result in more able women seeking higher education and having more able children who have better health (Behrman and Rosenzweig, 2002). Furthermore, future orientation may cause mothers to acquire more education and invest in their children’s health (Fuchs, 1982).

Similarly, establishing causality between mother’s education and early marriage, early childbearing and fertility outcomes is a challenge because low levels of empowerment and high dependency may result in women marrying early and having children, thus forgoing education.

This is an important issue in many Middle Eastern countries where marriage and childbearing in adolescence are high. For example, according to the Turkey Demographic Health Survey 2008, approximately 17% of ever-married women aged 20-45 in Turkey are married before the age of 16, and 13% have a child before they turn 17.

In a recent study, we use a ‘natural experiment’ in Turkey to study the effect of education on women’s fertility, their empowerment and their children’s health (Dinçer et al, 2013).

In 1997, Turkey passed the Compulsory Education Law, which increased compulsory formal schooling from five to eight years. Individuals born after 1985 (who were 11 or under in 1997) were the targets of the law – and their rates of enrolment in school in grades 6-8 (ages 11-13) rose (see Figure 1).

To accommodate the expected increase in enrolment, the government devoted additional resources to school infrastructure and hiring new teachers, and these investments varied across the sub-regions of Turkey.

In our experiment, we take a ‘treatment’ group of women who were born between 1986 and 1990 and who were affected by the legislation, and a corresponding comparison group of women who were born between 1979 and 1985 and were not affected.

We take advantage of variations across cohorts in the number of primary school teachers in the sub-region of residence at age 11 to construct an ‘instrument’ that we apply to predict the educational attainment of young women resulting from the Compulsory Education Law.

We then use the predicted education variable to estimate the effect of education on a variety of outcomes experienced by the treatment group of women and their offspring from information obtained when the treatment cohort was between the ages of 18 and 22 and the comparison cohort was between the ages of 23 and 29.

We find that a 10-percentage-point increase in the proportion of ever-married women with eight years of schooling lowered the number of pregnancies per ever-married woman by approximately 0.13 and the number of children born by 0.11. There is also some evidence of a decline in child mortality caused by mother’s education.

Our analysis also shows that a 10-percentage-point increase in the proportion with eight years of schooling raised the proportion of women using modern family planning methods by 8-9% and the proportion of women with knowledge of their ovulation cycle by 5-7%. But we find little evidence that schooling changed women’s attitudes towards gender equality.

From these findings, we infer that the decline in fertility and child mortality that we observe could not be on account of changes in women’s attitudes towards gender inequality resulting from increased education.

It is more likely that the decline in fertility and child mortality are the result of increases in age at first marriage and age at first childbirth, or increased use of contraceptive methods and improvements in women’s understanding of their ovulation cycle. It might be that attitudes are slow to change and that the content of education in classrooms is an important factor when it comes to changing attitudes.

Further reading

Adler, Nancy, and Katherine Newman (2002) ‘Socioeconomic Disparities in Health: Pathways and Policies’, Health Affairs 21(2): 60-76.

Behrman, Jere, and Mark Rosenzweig (2002) ‘Does Increasing Women’s Schooling Raise the Schooling of the Next Generation?’ American Economic Review 92(1): 323-34.

Dinçer, Mehmet Alper, Neeraj Kaushal and Michael Grossman (2013) ‘Women’s Education: Harbinger of Another Spring? Evidence from a Natural Experiment in Turkey’, NBER Working Paper No. 19597.

Fuchs, Victor (1982) ‘Time Preference and Health: An Exploratory Study’, in Economic Aspects of Health edited by Victor Fuchs, University of Chicago Press.

Mocan, Naci, and Colin Cannonier (2012) ‘Empowering Women Through Education: Evidence from Sierra Leone’, NBER Working Paper No. 18016.


Most read

Sustaining entrepreneurship: lessons from Iran

Does entrepreneurial activity naturally return to long-term average levels after big economic disturbances? This column presents new evidence from Iran on trends in entrepreneurship among various categories of firm size, sector and location – and suggests policies that could be effective in promoting entrepreneurial activities.

Happiness in the Arab world: should we be concerned?

Several Arab countries have low rankings in the latest comparative assessment of average happiness across the world. But as this column explains, the average is not a reliable summary statistic when applied to ordinal data. The evidence from more robust analysis of socio-economic inequality in happiness suggests that policy-makers should be less concerned about happiness indicators than the core development objective of more equitable social conditions for citizens.

Financial constraints on small firms’ growth: pandemic lessons from Iran

How does access to finance affect the growth of small businesses? This column presents new evidence from Iran before and during the Covid-19 pandemic – and lessons learned by micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.

The economics of Israeli war aims and strategies

Israel’s response to last October’s Hamas attack has led to widespread death and destruction. This column outlines the impact thus far, including the effects on food scarcity, migration and the Palestinian economy in both Gaza and the West Bank.

It’s too early to tell what happened to the Arab Spring

Did the Arab Spring fail? This column presents a view the consensus view from ERF’s recent annual conference in Morocco: careful analysis of the fundamental drivers of democratic transitions suggests that it’s too early to tell.

Arab regional cooperation in a fragmenting world

As globalisation stalls, regionalisation has emerged as an alternative. This column argues that Arab countries need to face the new realities and move decisively towards greater mutual cooperation. A regional integration agenda that also supports domestic reforms could be an important source of growth, jobs and stability.

Gender differences in business record-keeping and planning in Iraq

Only one in every ten informal businesses in Iraq is led by a woman. Yet as research summarised in this column reveals, those businesses are more likely to set budgets and sales targets, and to keep business records. This may be evidence of the role of social exclusion in motivating greater reliance on the formal bureaucratic system.

Self-employment in MENA: the role of religiosity and personal values

How important are individual’s values and beliefs in influencing the likelihood that they will embrace the responsibilities, risks and entrepreneurial challenge of self-employment? This column presents evidence from 12 countries in the Middle East and North African region on the roles of people’s religiosity and sense of personal agency in their labour market choices.

Reformed foreign ownership rules in UAE: the impact on business entry

In an effort to stimulate economic growth and diversify the economy, the government of the United Arab Emirates has recently implemented regulatory reform that allows 100% foreign ownership of companies operating in the country. This column examines the implications of the reform for entry of new firms in Dubai, using unique data on new business licences in the emirate.

Conflict and debt in the Middle East and North Africa

With the global economy is in its third year of deceleration amid declining inflation and oil prices, the Middle East and North Africa grew by just 1.9% in 2023, with a forecast for growth in 2024 at 2.7%. In addition to heightened uncertainty brought on by the conflict centred in Gaza, many countries in the region are also grappling with pre-existing vulnerabilities, including rising debt levels. This column summarises a new report that unpacks the nature of debt in MENA – and explains the critical importance of keeping rising debt stocks in check.