Education is one of the engines of economic growth and development. More education leads to higher incomes. For individuals living in low-income countries, an additional year of education increases wages by 7-11%.

And the benefits to education are not restricted to wages: better educated women are more likely to have healthier, better-educated children. They are also less likely to die in child birth.

As Hillary Clinton has said:

“When girls have access to quality education in both primary and secondary schools, cycles of poverty are broken, economies grow, glass ceilings crack and potential is unleashed.”

Yet, primary and secondary school completion are far from universal in low income countries. This is especially true for women whose rates of primary school completion are as low as 30% in some sub-Saharan African countries.

If education has such high returns, why isn’t educational attainment higher?

One possible answer is that parents often do not directly benefit from these returns. When making spending decisions, parents must think of their own old-age security as well. Parents may even worry that education will make children more likely to migrate, decreasing the likelihood that their children care for them in their old age.

Cultural norms often play an important role in determining whether children are educated. Often such norms can make parents choose to educate boys over girls. However, my research suggests, culture can also play an important role in incentivising parents to educate their girls.

Here’s how:

In my paper with researchers Nava Ashraf, Nathan Nunn, and Alessandra Voena – a part of the National Bureau of Economic Research working paper series – I studied one such cultural norm: the effect of bride price in Zambia and Indonesia on girls’ education.

Bride price can help girls in some ways. A girl from Zambia. DFID - UK Department for International Development, CC BY

Bride price is a custom whereby the groom pays the parents of the bride at the time of marriage. Many commentators think that bride price payments are an abusive practice since they believe these traditions are equivalent to buying and selling girls.

However, we find that bride price can benefit women as well.

In both Indonesia and Zambia, educated girls attract higher bride prices. For example, women who have completed primary schooling receive approximately 60 percent higher bride prices in Indonesia.

Indeed, females who belong to ethnic groups where traditional bride price amounts are larger are more likely to be enrolled in school than females who do not belong to these groups.

What our studies show

Moreover, we find that two large programs that built thousands of new primary schools in Indonesia and Zambia interact with bride price traditions in important ways.

In low income countries, distance strongly affects school enrollment, particularly for girls. School construction programs reduce the costs of attending school by building new schools that reduce the distance to schools.

We used census data to estimate the effect of these programs on female education by comparing growth in educational attainment for girls in districts where many schools were built to the growth in educational attainment for girls in districts where fewer schools were built.

We found that girls from ethnic groups with a strong bride price custom were more likely to respond to the school construction programs by enrolling in school.

A girl taking a numeracy test at a primary school in Zambia. Global Partnership for Education - GPE, CC BY-NC-ND

In both countries, we found that education increased more for girls from ethnic groups with bride price customs in districts where more schools were built: In Indonesia, an additional school per 1,000 students increased the probability of a girl from an ethnic group with a traditionally high bride price completing primary school by 3 percent. In contrast, the school construction had no effect on education for girls who did not belong to ethnic groups with strong bride price traditions.

While 3 percent may seem small, the effect of an additional school per 1,000 students on girls’ education is enough to close 20% of the gap in primary school completion between boys and girls. Moreover, 3 percent is the effect on the average girl, and it likely masks larger effects for girls in areas with few schools and smaller effects for girls who lived near a school already.

In Zambia, we find that school construction had similar effects on school enrollment for girls from ethnic groups with strong bride price traditions. Again, for girls in the non-bride price ethnic groups, the effect is close to zero.

My study of another custom – matrilocality, shows how other cultural norms can provide incentives to parents to invest in their daughters’ education. Matrilocality means that newly-weds stay with the parents of the bride after marriage and care for them in their old age. In such cases parents can benefit directly from their investments in their daughter’s education.

Indeed, I found that matrilocal ethnic groups in Indonesia are more likely to enroll daughters in school relative to sons when compared to non-matrilocal ethnic groups. On the flipside, I found that in patrilocal ethnic groups, where sons stay with their parents and care for them in their old age, boys are more likely to be enrolled in school relative to their female siblings.

Unintended consequences

But what happens when parents no longer rely on their children as much for old age support?

When parents have other ways of supporting themselves in their old age, they may invest less in their children’s education. Studying the introduction and expansion of two pension plans in Indonesia, I found that women who were young when the pension plans were put into effect, and who would traditionally be expected to care for their parents, received less education.

Women who were born after the pension plan was put into place and came from matrilocal ethnic groups were 13 percent less likely to complete secondary school. The effect was stronger in places where more pension plan offices, which likely enrolled more people, were built.

A junior high school in Ghana. EIFL, CC BY

Comparing patrilocal boys to non-patrilocal boys in Ghana, I found similar results. Patrilocal parents educated their sons less in response to the pension plan. A patrilocal boy born after the creation of the pension plan was 8% less likely to complete primary school.

So, the expansion of pension plans – a well-intentioned policy – had an unintended negative consequence. It reduced female education in Indonesia and male education in Ghana.

Parents’ expectations about old-age support may affect other decisions besides education. Research suggests that parents’ expectations that boys will support them in their old age may lead to son preference. This has already led to unbalanced sex-ratios in China, as well as other countries.

All this shows that culture matters. While bride price traditions may have other significant downsides, our findings suggest that bride price helps ensure that daughters are educated.

If we neglect the importance of culture, policies designed to increase female education and boost female welfare may be less effective than they could otherwise be. They may even have negative unintended consequences.

Natalie Bau, Assistant Professor of Economics, University of Toronto.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.