Sunday, May 17, 2009

Reducing gender differentials in education for high social returns

‘[Education] is a component of wellbeing and a factor in the development
of well-being through its links with demographic as well as economic and social factors.’

(UN, ICPD Chapter XI, Para 11.2, P76)

The moment of recognition of education as a tool of development is an outcome of years of advocacy supporting associations between women’s education and social welfare aspects like GNP per capita, life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality rate, total fertility rates and so on. It was also a moment establishing women as a major tool of development. Development economists and international institutions have indeed put forward higher social returns or the larger benefits that the society gains from education, particularly primary education, as a major argument to invest in women’s education from 1960s until now. This is the key reason behind my decision to focus on rates of social return and its broad implication for women. However, I acknowledge that in any society, the approach towards education and the impact of that approach are mediated by a range of other socio-political and cultural issues like ideology of those holding political power, political and governance systems, political, traditional and cultural values of the people, principles of social composition and so on.

At first, I will give a background of the human capital theory and a brief overview of the international institutions’ perspective and arguments and examples from my direct and indirect work experiences in the Eastern, Northern and Western Indian states and the Southern state of Kerala to substantiate the statement. In the second part, I will examine the validity of the arguments for higher social returns and explore various arguments for and against the social returns perspective to analyse its potentials and limitations. While examining potentials, I will argue that the social returns perspective needs to be continuously critiqued for its top-down approach as well as for its treatment of women as nothing more than mere tools for development. I am making this critique in knowledge that education without remunerative economic implication may not be a viable investment option for most people, especially the poor. But I am persuaded by the fact that it often results in girls and women being used for economic benefits of the family, community and society and this happens without any changes in the traditional gender relations, which could benefit women.


The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) memorandum’s roots could be traced to the rates of social return theory and efficiency approaches, specially the human capital approach in works like Uzawa’s Optimal Technical Change in an Aggregative Model of Economic Growth, Burns & Chiswick’s Analysis of the Effects of a Graduated Tuition Program at State Universities, Cohn et al ’s Benefit and Cost of Higher Education and Income Redistribution: Three Comments, Lucas’s On the Mechanics of Economic Development, Benhabib & Spiegel’s The Role of Human Capital in Economic Development: Evidence from Aggregate Cross-Country Data, and Aghion & Howitt’s Endogenous Growth Theory. The authors of these works have been trying to establish theoretical as well as material connections between education and growth. According to Schultz, Most early human capital theorists, however, did not include sex/gender as a category of analysis (qtd. in Woodhall 9). He viewed the theorists’ failure to this end as a tendency to see human capital as a unique male preserve, which initiated the process to engender the rates of social return theory through women’s education. It led Benham to analyse the positive influence of wife’s education on husband’s wages or market returns to marriage and labour market benefits to the family over and above increments to women’s own earnings (Benefits of Women's Education within Marriage S57-S71).

Over the period, the concept of the rates of social return has been widened to lay emphasis on externalities apart from private returns like increase in wages and women’s improved reproductive and care skills. The emphasis on externalities has highlighted the benefits which may occur to other social agents and larger society from spill-overs. Currently, rates of social return theory imputes both economic and non-market returns. It regards education important not only for women themselves but also for their family members and social development. Schultz argues that private returns or private benefits like increased individual and household gains from market productivity and non-market gains to the household, and social benefits like enlargement of tax base and positive externalities, should be the reasons for the governments to invest more in girls’ education. He considers investment in education for girls as the factors responsible for higher rates of social and economic growth in South-east Asia, East Asia and Latin America and poor investment in girls’ education for limited growth in the Middle-East and North Africa (Why Governments Should Spend More to Educate Girls 207-208). Recent publications like King and Hill’s Women's Education in Developing Countries: Barriers, Benefits and Policies, Hartnett and Heneveld’s Statistical Indicators of Female Participation in Education in Sub-Saharan Africa, Subbarao et al’s Women in Higher Education: Progress, Constraints and Promising Initiatives, Chakrabarti’s Women and adult Literacy in China: A Preliminary Inquiry and Kwesiga’s Women's Access to Higher Education in Africa: Uganda's Experience , which are focused on education and gender support and education for social change also reflect development economists' and international institutions’ focus on educating women to achieve higher social return.

Perspectives of International Institutions

The international conferences on women in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985) brought global attention to women in the low income countries. They led to formation of women’s departments, organizations, etc with a focus on improving women’s productive role through education. This women specific and women related programming came to be termed as women in development (WID) approach. The gender neutral way and lack of context specificity however resulted in maintenance of education gap between women and men (Leach Practicing Gender Analysis in Education 9; Kelly & Elliot Women's Education in the Third World: Comparative Perspectives 336). WID approach focused mostly on infrastructure development, such as the provision of rooms to conduct classes, in hope that a large number of schools will make education accessible to girls. Indeed, the availability of schools close to residences/homes does matter but in the absence of budgeting for complimentary and critical resources like quantity and quality of teachers and planning of school time table and curricula to meet the needs of the girls, investment in construction of school buildings is a waste. Sights of small school buildings without teachers or half complete rooms abandoned by the local government and people across rural areas in states like Bihar and Jharkhand are not uncommon.
Disenchantment with WID, beginning in 1980s, led to the emergence of two main schools of gender and development (GAD) approach. In development parlance, one is known as the efficiency approach, and the other as the empowerment approach. Both attempted to incorporate gender analysis in planning of all development projects including education. The purpose of gender analysis in the efficiency model, which is an adapted form of WID’s rates of social return theory, has been to ensure greater effectiveness by including women in economic development. The empowerment model focuses on increasing awareness of gendered structures and power relations amongst women. Derbyshire feels that both approaches are constrained in the sense that they ”focus on what women could do for development rather than what development could for women” (qtd. in Leach 10). The empowerment approach, however, has been more effective in a country like India. The focus on power analysis helps see gender, caste and class based fragmentations within educational curricula. Such fragmentations affect the quality of education available to women and men. This approach has been widely used by the civil society organizations including women’s organizations to develop educational methodologies and curricula to enhance egalitarian social and cultural capital and to influence educational and employment/livelihoods choices available to women.

The limitations of the efficiency and empowerment models paved the way for gender mainstreaming approach which attempts to combine strengths of efficiency and empowerment models and proposes integrating women’s and men’s concerns throughout the development process. The ICPD conference and the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) can be seen as two historical events in this process. In the context of India, gender mainstreaming approach brings to focus what has long been argued by feminists and gender sensitive educationists, namely that education is not merely about literacy rather it is an issue of gender and social justice. This approach provides the opportunity to analyse gender roles as a dynamic division and to induce changes in gender relations not just by empowering women but also advocating for changes in roles of men. But there are threats to the practical application of this approach. Often, development organizations and educational institutions across the country tend to perceive traditional gender role divisions as stagnant. Mainstreaming is, therefore, limited to accommodating existing gender needs but does not lead to an analysis of gender relations for a more egalitarian future. Mainstreaming is seen as making the same educational opportunities available to women and men. So, we do have newer areas of education and training opening up for women and some changes in the basic education curricula but there is not enough support like changes in pedagogy and curriculum, advocacy to address barriers arising from attitudinal issues and facilitative mechanisms for women to raise many other substantive issues which affect the learning process. Women still have to compete and perform in systems which were developed with little regard to women’s perspective and needs.

Also, adoption of mainstreaming approach does not imply that the ideas of rates of social return theory have been discarded. Despite these simultaneous processes and international feminist movement’s emphasis on gender mainstreaming, rates of social return theory or the efficiency approach continue to be used. For example, although the World Bank has moved on to mainstream gender through sector-wide approaches (SWAps), its publications like Wheale’s Education, Externalities, Fertility, and Economic Growth, Psacharopoulos et al’s Poverty and Income Distribution in Latin America, and Summers’s Investing in All the People: Educating Women in Developing Countries show theoretical and programmatic orientations indicating that education has been promoted either as a direct objective for improving women’s economic efficiency or as a strategy to facilitate social development. Similarly, bilateral donor agencies like DfiD or erstwhile ODA, USAID, AusAID, Japan ODA, etc hold on to the perspective that limited access to education lowers women's status and affects their capacity to effectively contribute to development programmes related to health, nutrition and family planning and livelihoods. Hence the need for intervention to make education available and accessible to women. Using Kabeer’s idea of institutional analysis in social relations approach it could be concluded that the policies and practices of international political, bilateral, lender and aid institutions influence the course of the low income countries’ policies and practices (qtd. in Leach 86-92). The emphasis on universal access to education emphasized by donor and bilateral agencies is a carryover from WID approach. Universal access may secure equal enrolment of girls and boys and wherever it has happened it is definitely used as a trump card by policymakers. For example, till recently, Kerala was cited as an example where universal access to education led to 100 percent literacy. It is also a state where property ownership and inheritance among women is higher compared to other states. Nowadays, however, it is not uncommon to hear about a decline in the literacy rate, increasing unemployment among women, an ever increasing workload of women and the segregation of women in care jobs like nursing, teaching, and so on. The reason is not hard to see. The emphasis on universal access to basic education requires much less resources. It is also important to note that this emphasis is laid mostly at the level of basic education. I feel that a tangible output like enrolment and retention of girls in basic education is used as a cover to hide the absence of political will which is critical for adopting principles of gender equality in education and for investing in curricula and systemic transformation of education. The WID approach improves women’s economic efficiency to the extent that women get access to the formal economic sector but it also lead to their segregation in lower level and care jobs. In my view, due to the absence of qualitative and ‘gender just’ transformation of education, despite universal access to basic education there has not been much qualitative change in gender gap in higher and technical education or in gender relations across Kerala.

Validity of Rates of Social Return & Efficiency Arguments

Theorists and researchers have differed over the argument that education increases the rates of social return and therefore contributes towards efficiency. Woodhall in Investment in Women: a Reappraisal of the Concept of Human Capital found that the private rates of return from education among women in relation to men were relatively less but she advocated that non-economic benefits must to be taken into account while estimating human capital (10). There are findings that support Woodhall’s suggestion that non-economic benefits may increase as result of education. For example, Hartnett & Heneveld in Statistical Indicators of Female Participation in Education in Sub-Saharan Africa used gender disaggregated data from six developed and three developing countries to prove that women’s education brings higher social returns. They estimate that each additional year of schooling decreases mortality of children below 5 years by 5-10 percent and the fertility rate declines by 10 percent. Unlike Woodhall who suggested that private returns to women remain less than men despite improvement in education, Psacharopoulos in Returns to Investment in Education: A Global Update suggested higher private returns from women’s education (1327). Psacharopoulos attempted to establish that investment in women’s education is an attractive investment opportunity because the aggregate of social and private rates of return for women is marginally higher than rates of return for men. The social and private rates of return are usually analyzed by comparing the amount of public cost on education with the approximate cost of improved reproductive services that the society and family gains as a result of women’s education and the extra tax that a state is able to generate on resultant improved earnings of women.

According to Kanbur in Education, Empowerment and Gender Inequalities, the arguments supporting women’s education on grounds of social returns suggest that women are not able to efficiently use certain opportunities and there is low supply of women’s economic effort because of labour market discrimination. Ultimately, it results in inefficient utilization of provisions like common property resources. Similar arguments exist to establish relationship between education and fertility, etc. The assumption is that addressing such constraints through education and legislation can increase efficiency (8-9). However, as apparent from the difference in Woodhall, Hartnett & Heneveld’s and Psacharopoulos’s findings, the rates of return are not consistent.

Some theorists like Baden & Green critique the methodologies which are used to impute these social returns (3). Another factor which makes it difficult to fully substantiate rates of social return theory is the near impossibility of quantifying entire range of externalities or social benefits. As a consequence, many wider externalities are often not included in calculations which tend to lower estimates of social returns and also lead to differences in the findings of different economists. Looking at the rates of social return theory from the perspective of gender equality, I see another gap. The theorists and promoters of the theory did not make any attempt to quantify the benefits that may accrue to women themselves as a result of education. The trend to leave the benefits to women out from the calculations has reinforced the role of women as tools of development and has prevented transformation of social expectations from women in a ‘gender just’ manner.

Arguably, there is a connection between women’s education and rates of social return. But the emerging picture from the developing countries belies the social return theory that the over all benefits arising from women’s education benefits women as well. The empirical findings suggest that women’s education has not always enhanced gender equality as it fails to account for regional variations in outcomes and cultural and gender specific constraints. The empirical findings also suggest that outcomes of education for women are not always favourable for women. Jeffery & Jeffery’s study titled Killing My Heart’s Desire: Education and Female Autonomy in Rural North India shows that with the improvement in women’s education among the ‘lower caste’ families in Nangal Village and emulation of ‘upper caste’ practices, there has been a gradual withdrawal of women from the wage work. Another example is the ever increasing work load of women. Education has facilitated women’s participation in paid work in many parts of the world but in the absence of any change in the traditional gender relations, women’s workload has also multiplied.

Arguments For and Against the Rates of Social Return & Efficiency Approaches

The rates of social return theory and efficiency approach are useful in explaining how the labour market discriminates by rewarding women's education less well than men's education. Kingdon in Gender gap in India's schools and Schultz in page 217 of Why Governments Should Spend More to Educate Girls argue that this is one of the reasons which discourage parents from investing their daughters’ education. While, the rates of social return and efficiency approaches identify one of the critical reasons that discourages parents from investing in their daughter’s education, these approaches do not adequately explain other reasons. They tend to give rather simplistic explanation that if market pays well then parents will send their daughters to school. They treat the household as ‘unitary’ structure unaffected by power dynamics. That is, as long as outside parameters benefit the household, the household will make a pro women’s education choice - when returns from schooling improves, household will get women educated and deploy their labour outside and vice-versa. This limitation arises because the rates of social return theory and efficiency approach tend to see the relationship between education and social returns as value free. It fails to take note of gender bias that affect the actualisation of benefits from education. This limitation can be evidenced by the fact that though literacy level has gone up in states like Punjab and Haryana, which also happen to be the richest in the country, and in Gujarat and Maharashtra, which are among those with the fastest economic growth, education does not seem to be a major factor in improving economic status and condition of women. Women in these states continue to be segregated in the informal sector and low wage jobs. Kanbur suggests that the rates of social return theory and efficiency approach also assume that credit constraints, land inequality, and a range of other external factors that constrain households are constant and do not have a gender dimension (9-10). Even if one were to accept that by adopting this approach wage differentials could be reduced, it does not reflect on gender differential of income indicator. Higher wages do not mean that women would have access to their own wages or they themselves benefit from the social returns.

The strength of the social returns perspective is in its ‘sensemaking’ efficiency arguments which can justify governments investing in women’s education than men’s. As discussed earlier, these approaches did influence the national governments as well as international bodies and led to investment in educational infrastructure development. But Longwe points out that hardly any substantial change in women’s situation was achieved (23-24). One of the major reasons for this is pointed out by Moser in Gender Planning in the Third World: Meeting Practical and Strategic Needs. These approaches define production in a rather limited way and do not value reproductive and community work. A fallout of this understanding is the assumption that women’s time is unengaged and readily available for ‘marketable productive’ work. If at all, these approaches increased women’s responsibilities by seeing household labour of women as surplus. Unless these issues are addressed in the educational policies and programmes, programmes to promote basic education will continue burdening women by a blanket reinforcement of traditional role divisions and ever increasing expectations of paid work in the economy and activism and participation in schemes like those under Integrated Child Development Programme.

A case for the efficiency approach is made possible by its finding that the highest returns to schooling occur at the primary school level and rates tend to decline at secondary and higher educational levels. This general pattern of diminishing returns to schooling justifies expanding primary education to begin with in low income countries where it may not be cost efficient to make large investments in higher education or to divide the investment equally in overall distribution of schooling. Though the need to invest in primary education is hard to refute, the limitation of the efficiency approach could be understood in terms of the gap between the policy objective and programme strategies that are adopted to achieve policy objectives. So completion of primary education by girls might be a policy objective but a programme developed to achieve this objective will not be a choice for parents as long as it does not address the need to link poverty, education and gender constraints. Leach points out that acquisition of literacy does not automatically lift people out of poverty nor does availability of education opportunity increases school enrolment, retention and socio-cultural worth of women (11). It is, therefore, important that the programmes developed to achieve the policy objective use strategies that link education with poverty, knowledge and skills, and gender constraints. In most parts of India, curricula and teaching materials remain gender-biased to a great extent. There is very little initiative from the side of the state, which dominates primary education, to make education sensitive to the specific needs of women which would help them gain economic and social equality. There is hardly any attempt to link primary education with non-traditional vocational skills. The tendency to ignore relevant science that relate to women's work experience and failure to give recognition to roles women play in agricultural and other traditional production practically means that the available education does not offer opportunities to upscale women’s knowledge and skills in productive work. This state of education deprives women of education and training that they could apply to improve their daily lives and enhance their employment opportunities in non-traditional areas.
The rates of social return theory can be supported from the perspective that often people pursue education not for its intrinsic worth but for improving their income earning capacities. From this perspective, the social return theory’s concern with economic productivity sounds valid. However, as pointed out by Gordon, empirical findings suggest that this approach could help perpetuate traditional gender division of labour by not challenging it (53-58). The kind of vocational training that is given to women in different parts of India, (eg, tailoring, cooking, and so on) are welfare oriented and are not effective in promoting women’s participation in formal economy. Though the social returns perspective highlights the linkage between education and job market, it does not explain why feminization of lower level jobs in the economy is growing. Similarly, it also fails to take into account other non-productive and non-economic factors which may increase the demand for education. For example, Jeffery & Jeffery’s study in India find that the changes in the eligibility pattern for marriage have led to increased demand for both primary and higher education.

According to Schultz, ”social externalities associated with reduced child mortality, increased child anthropometric capacities, […] decreased fertility are all linked more positively to women's schooling than they are to men's schooling, and these outcomes are valued by society” (215). The potential of arguing from this point is that since these outcomes are valued by the society they would make efficient arguments to invest in women’s education. This argument can be critiqued from Moser’s perspective of strategic gender needs or the needs which must be met to address women’s subordinate position in society (Gender Planning and Development: Theory, Practice and Training 39). Schultz’s argument does not advocate changing existing roles rather it reinforces them and therefore sees women as mere tools of development.

Schultz points to the potential of rates of social returns theory to highlight how it could yield more taxes for the national economies. He argues that with more educated women working more hours in the market would lead to enlargement of the tax base of the tax base which also opens the possibility of reducing existing tax distortions (215-216). However, this potential could become functional only if there is substantial change in women’s current circumstances and gender roles to allow them to get quality education and high wage jobs in the market. The nature and quality of current education opportunities available to women remain conventional. Usually girls do not get either the time or the opportunity to get technical and professional education which is more valued in the job market. Margolis & Lazarus in The way Girls Learn: A Patchwork Quilt of Impressions Gordon in Girls Cannot Think As Boys Do: Socialising Children Through the Zimbabwean School System and The Southern Natal Gender Committee hold the opinion that the educational systems tend to help retain male control over technology. The near absence of a relation between primary education and science that takes into account gender needs from the educational scene in India impacts women’s capacity to participate in advanced study in science and technology. This relation is essential for preparing women to participate in advanced study and to take an active role in the technological and industrial development. The rates of social return and efficiency approach have a narrow perspective towards education for women. Their scope is not wide enough to encompass a diverse approach which is needed to address the linkages between education, gender needs and economic development.

There is a need to recognize education’s connections with factors like ideas, beliefs and attitudes. As suggested by Longwe in page 23-26 of Education for women’s empowerment or schooling for women’s subordination? and Malhotra & Mather in page 604-607 of Do Schooling and Work Empower Women in Developing Countries? Gender and Domestic Decisions in Sri Lanka, there is a need to have simultaneous processes of education and curricula intervention, poverty redressal to meet the practical needs of women, and empowerment of women by removing access barriers, challenging gender norms, socio-cultural awareness, and structural changes. These are essential to help women exercise control over their lives, bodies, take on leadership roles, make decisions within and outside home and enable them to use their skills to negotiate more effectively and to deal with structures of power. These processes need to be supported by proactive policies which must recognize that strategic and practical gender needs are prerequisites for each other and one cannot be withheld till the other is met.


Incorporation of the gender mainstreaming concept in education and development is a relatively new phenomenon. The gradual emergence of the human capital theory and the rates of social return theory in the 1960s and 1970s made the world more receptive to the idea of `women' as a distinct rather than residual category which made its appearance in international education and development in the 1980s. Recognition of the role of women in economic development was a notable accomplishment in the discourse of education and development and a major achievement of feminist movements and theorists. It led to feminist theorizing on economics, the development a number of feminist approaches to education and most importantly it led to critical examination of gender inequalities in education.

Up till now the education intervention on women’s equality has been influenced by the social returns perspective insofar it is aimed at bringing economic output of women at par with men and improving women’s reproductive efficiency. Consequently, the reduction of gender differential in education has been the articulated goal in all the internationally agreed development targets. National development agendas, too, have mainly tried to address the ‘stereotypical deprivations’ of women, like, health, infant mortality, family planning, school enrolment, market based economic equality, etc.

The empirical results and assessments of social returns pointed to the association between education and gender bias. These findings reveal that socio-economic development does not necessarily mean gender development. I argue, alongside efficiency based initiatives, for gender development to happen as part and parcel of socio-economic development, variables such as socio-political empowerment of women, changes in the social structures, and so on that directly influence women’s ability to exercise agency must be recognized. The gradual realization that reduction of gender differential in education is closely connected to women’s capabilities as agents of change has paved the emergence of empowerment and mainstreaming approaches to education. In order to give priority to long term and seemingly intractable gender issues, gender equality goals must be incorporated in macro-level and SWAps. But compliance to macro-level policies and SWAps will come if the agenda is owned and led by local stakeholders and has an inclusive approach embracing governments, lenders and donors and civil society. But difficulty in mainstreaming gender, as Terry opines that that as long as men dominate the policy discourse ‘efficiency is likely to take precedence over equity’ (qtd in Leach 14). As long as the agenda to educate women will continue to be guided by a desire to improve social returns, nature and the content of education will be geared to maximize economic and reproductive benefits from women’s labour without much change in gender relations. Though the rates of social return theory, managed to convince donors, lenders and governments to invest in girls education to an extent, it does not offer even scant regard for improving women’s position at home or outside.


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