Educating girls as well as boys may be the best investment developing countries can make in their futures, according to a new study by the World Bank.
Women with even an elementary education raise the living standard in a poor country, argues Elizabeth M. King, one of the study's authors. They have fewer children, take better care of those they do have, work better at home and earn more when they take a job or market their own crops, she said.
"Education of girls may seem an odd subject for an economist to address," said former World Bank official Lawrence H. Summers, who is undersecretary of the Treasury for international affairs. "But enhancing women's contribution to development is as much an economic as a social issue."
Summers, former chief economist at the World Bank, wrote the foreword to the study, called "Women's Education in Developing Countries: Barriers, Benefits and Policies." The World Bank, owned by 176 countries, is the largest source of loans to the Third World. The United States is the biggest stockholder.
"Once all the benefits are recognized, investment in the education of girls may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world," Summers wrote.
There are obstacles in many countries to a girl's getting into school and staying there, King said in an interview.
She quoted the headmistress of a girl's school in Pakistan:
"There's no light, no fan. It is very depressing and dreary and suffocating. . . . There is no toilet. When they need a latrine, the girls have to go home during school hours, wasting a considerable amount of time."
And a woman in the northwest African republic of Mali:
"School is considered by parents to encourage promiscuity among adolescents because they promote a Western-style liberal education, which encourages sexuality."
Many parents feel they cannot afford the cost of sending a girl to school, King said. In some countries, the smallest girls--often as young as 5--are expected to help their mothers, much more so than boys.
The study takes a look at the education of 18-year-olds in some poor and some richer countries. It found that a boy in the West African republic of Benin, for example, could be expected to have spent seven years in school, but a girl only half that long.
The average income in Benin is about $380 a year and has been dropping all through the 1980s. One adult in four can read and write, but only one woman in six can.
In Portugal, 18-year-olds will have spent more than 10 years in school, the average girl a few months longer than the average boy.
Portuguese incomes have been growing, reaching an annual average of $5,620 in 1991. More than eight men out of 10 are literate, as are almost as many women.