Education for Equitable Development (PART II)

There is evidence indicating that higher levels of education, and not merely primary education, improve the health and well-being, and position of women in family and society. If we take women’s workforce participation rates as an approximation of women’s empowerment, then wage employment is a critical factor. However, the relationship between education and employment is a little more complex.

Education for Equitable Development II 1024x683

Education leads to the empowerment of women

There is evidence indicating that higher levels of education, and not merely primary education, improve the health and well-being, and position of women in family and society (Malhotra, Pande, and Grown 20031). Further, if we take women’s workforce participation rates (WPR) as an approximation of empowerment, then wage employment is a critical factor. However, the relationship between education and employment is a little more complex.

While there is a general trend of increased participation of women in paid employment as their education levels go up (Tienda et al, 19922), this relationship need not be a linear one, especially in countries like India. Indeed, there is a possibility of reduced workforce participation as women get higher levels of education (Kingdom and Unni, 19973; Sathar and Desai, 20004). This could be due to cultural factors (Das and Desai, 20035; Das, 20066) and/​or changing preferences regarding work. The cultural context, especially patriarchy, may encourage (many times in subtle ways) the withdrawal of educated women from paid work (to be non-working homemakers’). This could also happen with an improvement in the income status of the family (Abraham, 20137). The participation of women in unskilled work (like that in agriculture) was seen in traditional societies as an outcome of poverty or compulsion; hence, a little improvement in their life circumstance would encourage household heads to withdraw women from paid employment. This, then, becomes consonant with the patriarchal notions prevailing in the society. The aspirations of poor and working-class people to emulate slightly better off sections (probably lower-middle class, and in the Indian context, lower-caste’ groups emulating the upper caste, as part of the process called, Sanskritization’) may be enabling this process.

Educated women may also start preferring white-collar work (they may not like to take up unskilled work or even blue-collar jobs like those in lower-end manufacturing). There could be cultural factors in this regard too, but the availability of jobs also matters in this regard. The absence of enough employment opportunities due to the nature of economic growth also may lead to the withdrawal of educated women from the labour market (Das and Desai, 20038). Though education could lead to a reduction in the work participation rate in India, however, for those who are in the work force, an improvement in educational status could be linked to better quality employment (Srivastava and Srivastava, 20099).

On the other hand, improvements in education (and the affluence of the household) may encourage women to participate in paid employment. For women with higher education, the higher incomes that can be obtained from the labour market may become attractive enough for them to overcome the cultural preferences that keep women at home. Additionally, it could be that women may start asserting themselves and may see paid employment as an opportunity to further this. Such involvement in paid employment may happen for women even in the lower middle class who are in, or who move towards, urban areas due to the need to earn more (in addition to salary/​wages of husband) to meet the needs of the household.

Considering these two trends together (the reduced work participation as women get some levels of education and the tendency to take up work as the levels of education or income go up), one can postulate a U‑shape relationship between women’s education and work participation. Such a relationship was observed in developed countries, like the USA (Goldin, 199510). To some extent, this is evident in India too. Though WPR is higher for women who are illiterate than those with higher levels of school education, this trend reverses for women with technical/​vocational education and who are graduates (Srivastava and Srivastava, 200911). It was seen that the WPR of women declines with an improvement in economic status but rises again within the ten percent of people with the highest monthly consumption (which is a proxy for income). The improvement in economic status could imply an improvement in educational status too.

Hence, the relationship between education and employment for women need not always be a positively linear one. Moreover, in conditions like those in India, paid employment outside could also lead to an increased burden for women (the triple burden’ phenomenon where women have to continue to perform household chores based on the gendered division of labour and raise children in addition to meeting the needs of employment).

While this may indeed be true, one could also view this situation with a counterfactual question that brings out starkly the importance of education in shaping such a cultural change: Would the absence of education contribute to greater empowerment of women? That this is not the case can be argued along multiple dimensions. Illiteracy or very low levels of education usually has meant (and increasingly in a skilled and knowledge-driven economy) economic deprivation, poverty or employment in poorly paid unskilled work, hazardous work that is stigmatized and volatile or unstable. Moreover, some levels of education may enhance the chances of getting more levels of education and probably an increased ability to negotiate household pressures to get into paid employment; an income from paid employment may also mean an improved bargaining power within the family regarding household work or gendered power structures there. Educated and employed women may be in a relatively better position in the case of a breakdown of the marriage. For example, Sayer et al (2011)12 note that when wives report below-average marital satisfaction, their employment makes it more likely that they will leave the marriage in the USA – this in itself is an act of empowerment despite the fact that single-women face greater difficulties in raising a child or finding housing and social forms of control or sanctions (arguably less so in the USA than in India).

There are other dimensions of empowerment of women, which are influenced by education. For example, educated women tend to oppose the genital cutting of their daughters and granddaughters (El-Gibaly et al, 199913). We need to see other examples where such a correlation is not as easy to make or where the situation is far more complex. Here, the case of dowry in India is illustrative. It has been argued that while dowry increases with the level of education of the groom (in many communities), dowry is unrelated to the education of the bride (Munshi 201714). Another study points to the possibility that parents may spend on educating their daughters even while disinheriting them from property ownership and rationalizing it through the offer of dowry (Roy 201515).

Education seems to have a negative impact on violence against women in general. Analysis based on Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) data from Cambodia, Colombia, India, and Nicaragua shows that women with more education are less likely to report to have experienced violence (Kishor and Johnson 200316). On the other hand, the highest rates of violence were found among women with only primary education in the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Peru, and Zambia, while the lowest rates were among women with secondary or higher education (Ibid). Of course, the micro-context of what happens when girls acquire literacy and some level of primary education and its connection with violence in their lives needs to be analyzed. Nevertheless, one may advance the argument that though education may not avoid violence against women, it may be reduced. For, education could enhance women’s control over their bodies. In that sense, higher education is associated with the empowerment of women (Malhotra, Pande and Grown 200317). However, it is noted that the impact of women’s education is greater in settings that are already relatively egalitarian, which points to the synergic or enabling role played by other factors, such as social institutions.

Education has a moderating impact on certain kind of crimes

One can broadly categorize crimes into three categories: (a) crimes that are part of the day to day behaviour or are accepted as normal practice in many societies. Violence against women or children could be part of this. There could be underlying class and gender dimensions here. The landlord beating a worker could be part of the normal practice in a feudal society, or police treating an accused with inhuman violence or even teachers using corporal punishment in many developing or poorer societies can also be considered as part of this category; (b) crimes committed with other motives. Robbery, murder for financial gains, and so on are part of this category; © crimes committed with a political objective, and terrorist activities are examples of this kind.

There can be rational reasons to expect that education will have a moderating impact on criminal behaviour. In an article, Lochner L (2004)18 develops a model of crime in which human capital increases the opportunity cost of crime from foregone work and expected costs associated with incarceration. However, there can be different relationships between education and different kinds of crimes. As noted in the previously mentioned article, more educated adults may commit fewer street (amateurish) crimes. On the other hand, education need not lead to the decline of (or may increase) the so-called white-collar crimes. The study could see evidence from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and arrest data from the Uniform Crime Reports of the USA confirming these hypotheses. Another article19 studied the crime-reducing potential of education, using the context of a law that changed the compulsory school-leaving age in England and Wales. They could see significant decreases in property crime from reduction in the proportion of people with no educational qualifications and increases in the age of school-leaving that resulted from the change in the law. This study too confirms that improving education can provide significant social benefits through the reduction in crimes. There is a study20 that looks into the non-market effects of education on crime using a panel dataset for twenty Italian regions over the period 1980 – 1995. It shows that education reduces crime over and above its effect through higher employment and income. They could control these economic variables based on their dataset and see the impact of education per se (and not mediated through economic opportunities). This may indicate the positive contribution of the knowledge and awareness, socialization and other intangible gains made through education towards the reduction of crimes.

Lochner and Moretti (2001)21 have analysed the effect of high school graduation on participation in criminal activity in the USA after accounting for what can be called, the endogeneity of schooling’. (This is necessary since participation in crime may work against schooling which may create a selection bias among the schooled children.) Their estimates suggest that completing high school reduces the probability of being in jail by about .76 percentage points for whites and 3.4 percentage points for blacks. The larger impact of education on moderating crimes among a socially vulnerable group is worth notable. Graduation seems to have a greater (negative) impact on participation in murder, assault, and motor vehicle theft. They could see that the lesser participation of educated in crimes was due to the changes in behaviour (and not due to the increased ability to get out of the legal net). According to these authors, this positive externality of education is worth about 14 – 26 percent of the private return to schooling, implying that a significant part of the social return to education comes due to the reduction in crimes.

One may argue that there may be societies (like the so called traditional’ communities in India) where criminal tendencies of individuals are moderated through social norms even without the spread of education. However, such social norms need not be benign in all circumstances. Though social norms and their enforcement may constrain theft or robbery in rural settings, there can be violence-enhancing social norms, and the influence of such norms may even reduce the effectiveness of formal laws against violence and crimes (Gangopadhyay and Santhakumar, 201322). There could be a higher incidence of violence (leading to explicit crimes) within families, and this is sustained by social norms. This may be true in the case of honour killings – the killing of girls for marrying men in caste groups not favoured by the norms of a specific community or caste.

There have been investigations on the relationship between education and political crimes. For example, Krueger and Maleckova (2003)23 have analysed whether there is a connection between low-education and terrorism (along with other factors like poverty). They used data on people’s support for attacks against Israeli targets from public opinion polls conducted in Palestine (West Bank and the Gaza Strip). They could see that the support for violent attacks does not decrease among those with higher education and higher living standards. Instead, having a secondary or higher education was found to be positively associated with participation in extremist organisations. Such a pattern was also observed among the Israeli Jewish settlers who attacked Palestinians in the West Bank in the early 1980s. Hence, education may not have a moderating impact on crimes related to political or terrorist activities.

Education helps people to lead less morbid lives

One article24 has examined what can be called healthy life expectancy’ by gender and education for whites and African Americans in the USA in three time periods: 1970, 1980 and 1990. They could see that the differences by education in healthy life expectancy are larger than differences in total life expectancy. Racial differences in healthy life expectancy get narrower at the higher education level. They could see a compression of morbidity in the nineties among the higher educated whereas those with lower levels of education are still experiencing an expansion of morbidity.

People with higher levels of education may have lower morbidity rates from the most common acute and chronic diseases, after controlling demographic and labour-market factors25. They could see that better-educated individuals are less likely to self-report a past diagnosis of acute or chronic disease, less likely to die from the most common acute and chronic diseases and are less likely to report anxiety or depression. The magnitude of the impact of education is evident from the following specific findings: more education reduces the risk of heart disease by 2.2 percentage points (relative to a base of 31 percent) and the risk of diabetes by 1.3 percentage points (relative to a base of 7 percent). An additional four more years of schooling lowers the probability of reporting being in fair or poor health by 6 percentage points (the mean is 12 percent) and reduces lost days of work due to sickness by 2.3 days each year (relative to 5.2 on average). Individuals with an additional four years of education are less likely to smoke (11 percentage points relative to a mean of 23 percent), to drink a lot (7 fewer days of 5 or more drinks in a year, among those who drink, from a base of 11), to be overweight or obese (5 percentage points lower obesity, compared to an average of 23 percent), or to use illegal drugs (0.6 percentage points less likely to use illegal drugs, relative to an average of 5 percent).

Though life expectancy has been increasing for everyone in the USA, the differences in life expectancy between those with and without a college education have grown over time. The same study has noted that the differences in morbidity (and life expectancy) between more and less educated cannot be explained fully in terms of health behaviour. It could be that there are multiple pathways through which education leads to improved health, and these may include interrelationships between demographic and family background indicators, effects of poor health in childhood, greater resources associated with higher levels of education, a learned appreciation for the importance of healthy behaviour, and one’s own social networks.

Wolfe and Zuvekas (1997)26 have identified the following health-related effects of education: one person’s education may lead to an improvement in one’s own health status, and that of one’s family members (in particular, one’s own children). There could be a possible contribution of schooling to the efficiency of (consumer) choices (i.e. on smoking and on the use of healthcare). Since one’s own education contributes to children’ education, benefits in terms of efficiency of consumer choices may lead to inter-generational benefits. Similarly, one person’s education may have a positive impact on one’s own and their children’s fertility choices.

Another paper27 examined the educational disparities in mortality and life expectancy among blacks and whites in the 1980s and 1990s. It could also see that the educational gap in life expectancy is rising. They have noted that all recent gains in life expectancy have occurred among better-educated groups. This can be attributed to behavioural change in individuals. However, such healthy behaviour’ need not be limited to those attributes which have an impact on one’s own life. It can have a positive externality on others. Reduction in smoking is one such habit. The same study found that higher education has a mitigating impact on smoking behaviour. The data showed that 31 percent of adults aged between 25 – 64 years, with a high school diploma or less, were smoking in 2010, compared with 24 percent of those who had some college experience and 9 percent with a bachelor’s degree.

Yet another study could see that for individuals born in the USA between 1914 and 1939, an additional year of schooling reduces the probability of dying in the next 10 years by 3.6 percentage points (Lleras-Muney, 200528). A similar study of Swedish men born between 1945 and 1955 reports that an additional year of schooling reduces the risk of bad health by 18.5 percent (Spasojevic, 200329). An increase in the average number of years of education within the household reduces child mortality by approximately 10 percentage points30 in Indonesia (Breierova and Duflo, 200431). It was also found that women who have been able to enrol in college and stay for a minimum of two years have a significantly reduced probability of smoking during pregnancy (Currie and Moretti, 200232).

At one level, education could be reducing the need for excessive healthcare, the associated costs of dependence, lost earnings and human suffering. However, in developing countries like India, education may be leading to higher use of medical systems. Hence, the relationship between education and the use of the health system need not be a linear one. Overall, it was found that education is strongly linked (and lead) to better health33.


  1. Malhotra, A., R. Pande, and C. Grown. 2003. ―Impact of Investments in Female Education on Gender Equality. International Center for Research on Women, Washington, D.C.

  2. Tienda M, Donato KM and Cordero-Guzman H (1992). Schooling, color, and the labor force activity of women. Social Forces 71:365 – 395.

  3. Kingdon GG and Unni J (2001). Education and Women’s Labour Market Outcomes in India. Education Economics 9(2): 173 – 95

  4. Sathar Z and Desai S (2000). Class and gender in rural Pakistan: Differentials in economic activity In Garcia B (Ed.) Women, Poverty and Demographic Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 175 – 192

  5. Das MB and Desai S (2003). Are Educated Women Less Likely to be Employed in India? Social Protection Discussion Paper No. 313. Washington DC: The World Bank.

  6. Das MB (2006). Do Traditional Axes of Exclusion Affect Labor Market Outcomes in India? South Asia Series, Paper No.97. Washington DC: The World Bank.

  7. Abraham V (2013). Missing labour or consistent de-feminisation? Economic and Political Weekly 48(31): 99 – 108

  8. Das, M B and Desai, S (2003) Why are Educated Women Less Likely to be Employed in India? Testing Competing Hypotheses, Social Protection Discussion Paper Series No. 0313, World Bank

  9. Srivastava, N and Srivastava, R. (2009), Women, Work, and Employment Outcomes in Rural India, Paper presented at the FAO-IFAD-ILO workshop on gaps, trends, current research in gender dimensions of agricultural and rural employment.

  10. Goldin CJ (1990). Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women. New York: Oxford University Press.

  11. Srivastava, N and Srivastava, R. (2009), Women, Work, and Employment Outcomes in Rural India, Paper presented at the FAO-IFAD-ILO workshop on gaps, trends, current research in gender dimensions of agricultural and rural employment.

  12. Sayer, Liana C., Paula England, Paul D. Allison, and Nicole Kangas. 2011. She Left, He Left: How Employment and Satisfaction Affect Women’s and Men’s Decisions to Leave Marriages.’ American Journal of Sociology 116(6):1982 – 2018

  13. El-Gibaly O., Ibrahim B., Mensch B.S. and Clark W.H. 2002. The decline of female circumcision in Egypt: evidence and interpretation’ Soc. Sci. Med. 54: 205 – 220

  14. Munshi, S. (2017) Arranged’ marriage, education, and dowry: A contract-theoretic perspective, Journal of Economic Development 42(1):35 – 71

  15. Roy, S. (2015) Empowering Women? Inheritance Rights, Female Education and Dowry Payments in India’, Journal of Development Economics, Vol. 114, pp. 233 – 251

  16. Kishor, S., and K. Johnson. 2003. Women’s health at the nexus of poverty and domestic violence: Evidence from the developing world. Paper presented at the 2003 Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

  17. Malhotra, A., R. Pande, and C. Grown. 2003. ―Impact of Investments in Female Education on Gender Equality. International Center for Research on Women, Washington, DC

  18. Lochner, L (2004) EDUCATION, WORK, AND CRIME: A HUMAN CAPITAL APPROACH, International Economic Review, 45, 3, 811 – 843

  19. Machin, S. Marie, O. and Vujic, S. (2011) The Crime Reducing Effect of Education, The Economic Journal, 121, 552, 463 – 484

  20. Buonanno, P. and Leonida, L. (2009) Non-market effects of education on crime: Evidence from Italian regions, , Economics of Education Review, 28, 1, 11 – 17

  21. Lochner, L. and Moretti, E. (2001) The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports, NBER Working Paper No. 8605

  22. Gangopadhyay, S. and Santhakumar, V. (2013) Law and Economics: Theory and Practice (Two Volumes: Vol I Authored and Vol II Edited), New Delhi: Sage

  23. Krueger, Alan, B., and Jitka Malečková. 2003. Education, Poverty and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?’ Journal of Economic Perspectives, 17 (4): 119 – 144.

  24. Crimmins, E. M. and Saito, Y. (2001) Trends in healthy life expectancy in the United States, 1970 – 1990: gender, racial, and educational difference, Social Science & Medicine, 52, 11, 1629 – 1641

  25. Cutler, D. M. and Lleras-Muney, A. (2007) Education and Health: Insights from International Comparisons, NBER Working Paper No. 17738

  26. Wolfe, B. and Zuvekas, S. (1997) Nonmarket Outcomes of Schooling’ International Journal of Educational Research 27(6): 491 – 502

  27. Meara, E. R. Richards, S. and Cutler, D. M. (2008) The Gap Gets Bigger: Changes In Mortality And Life Expectancy, By Education, 1981 – 2000, Health Aff., 27, 2, 350 – 360\

  28. Lleras-Muney, A. 2005. The relationship between education and adult mortality in the United States. Review of Economic Studies 72: 189 – 221

  29. Spasojevic, J. 2003. Effects of education on adult health in Sweden: Results from a natural experiment. PhD dissertation, City University of New York Graduate Center, New York

  30. Indonesian government’s implementation of a primary school construction project in the years 1973 – 79 is used as a strategy to identify the causal effect of education.

  31. Breierova, L. & Duflo, E. (2004). The Impact of Education on Fertility and Child Mortality: Do Fathers Really Matter Less than Mothers? NBER Working Paper No. 10513

  32. Currie, J., & Moretti, E. (2003). Mother’s Education and the Intergenerational Transmission of Human Capital: Evidence from College Openings. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(4), 1495 – 1532

  33. Feinstein, L., Sabates, R., Anderson, T. Sorhaindo, A. and Hammond, C. (2006), Measuring the Effects of Education on Health and Civic Engagement: Proceedings of the Copenhagen Symposium, Paris, chapter What are the effects of education on health?, pp. 171 – 354


V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru

Featured photo by Praniket Desai on Unsplash

This article is published in two parts. To read PART I, click here.