When learning saves lives: education and child mortality

By Kevin Watkins, director of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report

Attabari Elementary School in Sana’a, Yemen. Education gives girls the tools to make choices, demand services and sift information. (Photo: Linda Shen ©UNESCO)

Give a man a fish, as the saying goes, and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you nourish him for a lifetime. But that’s nothing. Give a girl an education and you not only transform her life chances – you also give her children a better chance of staying alive.

Child survival has emerged as a focal point for international development cooperation. The Canadian government has put it at the top of the agenda for the Group of 8 summit meeting in June. And at the top is where it belongs. Almost 10 million children die before their fifth birthday, a third of those in the first month. That’s a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.

Tackling that emergency is a moral imperative. But what is the most effective route to achieving the Millennium Development Goal of cutting child deaths by two-thirds by 2015?

Answers to that question invariably emphasize early nutritional interventions, immunization and providing health services. All of these are vital – and there is plenty of compelling evidence that small financial investments can make a big difference. But viewing child mortality through a narrow health policy lens obscures the critical role that girls’ education can play in saving lives.

My colleague Patrick Montjourides has produced some striking calculations to demonstrate the point. These estimates capture the powerful association between maternal education and child survival – a link that G-8 policymakers would be well advised to consider as they prepare for their summit.


Figure 1 provides a graphic representation of child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa. Each square in the figure represents 10,000 deaths of children under 5. With around 4.3 million deaths a year, sub-Saharan Africa is the developing region with the highest child death rate – 144 per 1000 live births – and the region that is furthest off-track for achieving that millennium development goal.

Figure 1: Under-5 mortality in sub-Saharan Africa

(Sources: DHS, Unicef 2009)

Education could change this picture. Using data from 26 countries, Figure 1 demonstrates that if child mortality rates for sub-Saharan Africa in 2008 had fallen from the weighted regional average to the level for the children of mothers with at least some secondary education, about 1.8 million lives would have been saved.

Before the economists among you reach for your keyboards to bash out a complaint, let me clarify one thing. Association between child survival and maternal education is not the same as causation. Education is associated with other factors, such as higher levels of wealth, better housing and improved nutrition, which in turn all weigh heavily on child survival prospects. There is a small econometric cottage industry seeking to unravel cause and effect by controlling for variables. But the simple story is that gains in female education interact with gains in productivity, health and other factors to create a virtuous cycle.

The fuel driving that cycle is empowerment. Give a girl an education and you give her the tools to make choices, demand services and sift information. Of course, immunization is a vital weapon in combating child mortality. And we know that ante-natal care is strongly associated with survival in the first days and months of life. But women with education are far more likely to immunize their children and seek ante-natal care (Figure 2). And they are also much more likely to control their reproductive health in ways that minimize risk during pregnancy.

Figure 2

(Source: UNESCO, 2008)

None of this should divert attention from the fundamental issues that we look at in the 2010 Global Monitoring Report. Female education and gender equity in schooling are basic human rights. They don’t have to be justified by reference to wider benefits for economic growth, child survival or nutrition.

That said, our back-of-the envelope calculations serve to highlight that girls’ education does have some powerful multiplier properties. As the G-8 governments prepare for their summit in Canada and beyond, they might want to consider using their aid programmes to tap into those properties.

They could start by delivering on their pledges to scale up aid for countries working to achieve the Education for All goals.



  1. The article provides solutions that do not present any doubt if implemented, on bottom line we need to focus on education for life. There is a need to promote reading culture at early child hood education since the completion rate is still down, we need to ensure that every girl child who steps in a school gets life time skills to use gradually for entire lifetime and the greatest skill every person needs for survival is reading, this is because today’s world presents an opportunity one to educate her or himself due to the availability of different reading materials.

    Dixon Ampumuza
    Program Delivery Coordinator
    Reading Initiative Foundation of Uganda (RIFU)

  2. Linkages between women’s education and child survival are well established. Women’s health, as GMR 2010 also points out, impacts child’s cognitive and physical development in varied ways. However, though the importance of the ‘humanitarian emergency’ of children’s health worldwide cannot be discounted, it is important not to lose track of an important fact: The desired character of education for girls needs to focus more on empowerment of women as persons in their own right and not just as ‘future mothers.’

    It cannot be disputed that educational policy documents acknowledge empowerment of women as an important goal, and Kevin Watkins also mentions it in concluding remarks. But by and large, all national and international policy documents embody the notion of women as contributors to the well-being of their families and societies at large. Generally speaking, arguments for women’s education which are centered on their economic contribution via tapping the potential of more than half the population, and social payoff through improved health and education of children and reduced fertility, resonate well with national governments and international donors. Other benefits – like freedom, career, personal fulfillment and self-actualization – are usually not direct considerations in formulating education policies for women.

    There is a need to ensure that the goal of women’s empowerment through education is not co-opted by the larger agenda built around women’s reproductive and productive roles.

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