The Short-Term Impacts of a Schooling Conditional Cash Transfer Program on the Sexual Behavior of Young Women

Educational conditional cash transfer programs lead to “win-win” scenarios for girls: increases in their schooling and reductions in risky sexual behavior.


Conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs targeted at education generally provide cash to poor parents under the condition that they send their children to school. CCTs have led to large increases in school enrollment and attendance. Some studies have shown that CCTs can also affect the sexual behavior of the students involved in the programs, but the evidence is mixed at best. This study provides evidence of one-year impacts of a CCT program in Malawi to examine whether they can be useful in not only improving school attendance of the girls in the program, but also in reducing their sexual activity, teenage pregnancy, and early marriage. In a country such as Malawi, where HIV prevalence was more than four times higher for females than males in 2004 for this age group, programs such as CCTs may ultimately be useful in reducing gender gaps in HIV.

The study enrolled girls from Zomba district in Malawi into the CCT program, and compared them to a control group of girls from the same district after one year. Girls enrolled in the CCT program received an average of $10 in cash per month and those in secondary school had their school fees paid for the year (primary school is free).. This $10 per month represented roughly 15% of total monthly household spending at baseline. The program participants were a mix of girls aged 13 to 22 who were either still in school or who were still eligible to go to school but had dropped out before the start of the CCT program.


The results from this program are promising. After one year, girls and young women in the treatment group were more likely to return to (or stay in) school, and they also significantly delayed or reduced their sexual activity. Among the baseline dropouts, the program also delayed marriage —which is the main alternative to schooling for young women in Malawi—and reduced the likelihood of teenage pregnancies. 

  • The program led to large increases in school enrollment. Among previous school dropouts, girls in the program were 3-4 times more likely to be in school than girls in the control group, with 61% in school in the treatment group and only 17% in school in the control group at the end of the school year. Among girls already in school at baseline, 93% were still enrolled after one year in the treatment group compared to 89% in the control group.
  • Marriage rates were also lower for program participants who had previously dropped out of school. At the end of the school year, only 16% of initial dropouts in the program were married compared to 28% of initial dropouts in the control group, marking a 40% reduction in marriage rates for these girls in the program. The program had no effect on the girls who were already in school at baseline, as 5% of these girls were married at the end of the school year in both the control and treatment groups.
  • Pregnancy rates were lower among initial dropouts in the program, as there was a 5.1 percentage point decrease in the likelihood that these girls had become pregnant during the school year in comparison to the control group, representing a 30% reduction. The CCT program had no impact on pregnancy rates for the girls who were already in school at the beginning of the program.

Sexual activity decreased as a result of the program. Initial dropouts in the program reported a 47% reduction and initial schoolgirls reported a 31% reduction in the onset of sexual activity in comparison to the control groups, respectively. The program had no impact on condom use.

Educational CCTs appear to be a “win-win” for girls in poor sub-Saharan countries, as they not only increase schooling for young women but also significantly reduce sexual activity and thus potentially the risk of HIV infection. In addition, increases in the age of first marriage and pregnancy may lead to improved outcomes for the girls’ children, leading to cross-generational benefits. This program has important implications for girls in countries such as Malawi, in which CCT programs are becoming more common and risk of HIV infection disproportionately affects young women and school-aged girls.



The majority of never-married girls ages 13 to 22 were interviewed from 176 Enumeration Areas (EAs) in the Zomba district of Malawi between October 2007 and January 2008. This age group was chosen because it represents the time in which girls typically drop out of school and their onset of sexual activity. Researchers interviewed the girls for information about the girls’ household characteristics, school enrollment, sexual behavior, marital expectations, and social networks. Following the interviews, 1,230 girls from 88 randomly selected EAs were sampled to receive the CCT program, and ultimately the treatment group consisted of 876 girls and the control group of 1816 girls. Thus a total of 2,692 girls, consisting of both dropouts and current schoolgirls, participated in the study. Participating girls and their parents/guardians signed a contract at the beginning of the program, which detailed the program benefits.           

The program paid the school fees directly to the schools. The $10 in cash was transferred to the families once a month at centrally located and well-known places, such as churches and schools. This cash was split between the parent and the girl, with an average of $7 to the parent or guardian, and $3 to the girl. This cash was only transferred to the family if the participating girl attended school for at least 80% of the days her school was in session in the previous month. Monthly attendance was determined by the students’ school attendance records.

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