Secondary Education for Females: A Primary Way to Prevent Overpopulation

| November 17, 2011 | 1 Comment

By Beth Kinsella
Maternal & Child Health Columnist

The recent occasion of 7 Billion Day on October 31st, 2011, marks both an accomplishment and challenge for humanity, requiring the global community to “unite, seven billion strong, in the name of the global common good,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stated. “Global problems demand global solutions,” he added.[1]

Overpopulation is a crucial “global problem” recognized by the U.N. According to estimates made in May, the world population in 2050 will be 9.3 billion, with a disproportionate contribution from Africa, which currently has a 2.3% growth rate.[2] However, according to Joel Cohen, there is a solution to the overpopulation problem that does not involve a coercive “one-child” rule as in China. Increasing female secondary education in developing nations, where birth rates are the highest, has the potential to dramatically decrease population growth by 2050.[3]

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon addresses youth on UN Day, October 24th, 2011. Photo courtesy of UN multimedia.

The current state of secondary education for females is a global concern, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. For example, as of 2004, only 16% of girls in Ethiopia received secondary education. Consistently, females reach secondary school far less often than their male peers.[3] Although sobering, the current inadequacy of female secondary education allows room for remarkable turnaround in education, and, consequently, in birth rates, provided that secondary education is implemented more widely for females.

Furthermore, case studies of improved secondary education for females offer hope for the future. A 1998 study of Niger discovered a 31% decrease in fertility rate among women who had completed secondary school. A comparable 1997 study in Yemen found a 33% decrease.[3]

Education acts through several pathways to decrease birth rates among women in developing countries. Economically, income increases by at least 10% for every additional year of school.[3] Because education is associated with permanent increases in income, it allows women to more substantially focus their efforts on improving the quality of life of a few children, rather than improving the quantity of children with the hopes of only a fraction of offspring surviving into adulthood. Additionally, by circumstance, women who have higher education are more likely to have mates of similar education levels, elevating the economic status of the whole household.[4]

Another benefit of increased female education is improved accessibility and understanding of fertility options and health-promoting measures before and during pregnancy.[4] In fact, many efforts to curb population growth emphasize family planning education as the sole intervention. However, although also shown to be effective in reducing birth rates, family planning education for women is insufficient compared to comprehensive education through secondary school. According to a study by Subbarao and Raney, total fertility rate (TFR) of women in developing nations would decrease by 26% if female secondary education were doubled, while doubling family planning services would only decrease TFR by 9%.[5]

Increasing secondary education for females in developing nations must be a primary goal as the population count swiftly passes 7 billion. By extending beyond family planning into comprehensive schooling, secondary education efforts have the potential to empower women economically, socially, and intellectually, while also curbing population growth. As UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin stated on World Population Day 2011, “When women and adolescent girls have rights and opportunities, their families, communities, and nations prosper”.[6]


[1] Ban Ki-Moon, Secretaty General.  “Message for UN Day.”  Office of the Spokesperson- Latest Statements.  24 Oct 2011. <> .  1 Nov 2011.

[2] Steenhuysen, Julie.  “Curb population growth?  Keep girls in school.”  Reuters.  24 Oct 2011. <>.  1 Nov 2011.

[3] Cohen, Joel E.  “Make secondary education universal.”  Nature 456 (3 Dec 2008) 572-573.

[4] McCrary, Justin and Heather Royer.  The Effect of Female Education on Fertility and Infant Health: Evidence from school entry policies using exactly date of birth.  June 2006.  <>.  1 Nov 2011.

[5] Subbarao, K. and Laura Raney.  “Social gains from female education: A cross-national study.”  Economic Development and Cultural Change 44 (Oct 1995) 105-128.

[6] Osotimehin, Dr. Babatunde.  Youth and Adolesents in a World of 7 Billion.  United Nations Population Fund.  8 July 2011.  <>.  1 Nov 2011.

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