Background: Child marriage harms girls' health and hinders progress toward development goals. Randomized studies have shown that providing financial incentives for girls' education can effectively delay marriage, but larger-scale interventions are needed in light of slow progress toward curbing the practice. Many sub-Saharan African countries eliminated primary school tuition fees over the past two decades, resulting in massive increases in enrolment. We measured the effect of these policies on the probability of primary school completion and of marriage before 15 and 18 years of age.
Methods: We used Demographic and Health Surveys to assemble a dataset of women born between 1970 and 2000 in 16 countries. These data were merged with longitudinal information on the timing of tuition fee elimination in each country. We estimated the impact of fee removal using fixed effects regression to compare changes in the prevalence of child marriage over time between women who were exposed to tuition-free primary schooling and those who were not.
Results: The removal of tuition fees led to modest average declines in the prevalence of child marriage across all of the treated countries. However, there was substantial heterogeneity between countries. The prevalence of child marriage declined by 10-15 percentage points in Ethiopia and Rwanda following tuition elimination but we found no evidence that the removal of tuition fees had an impact on child marriage rates in Cameroon or Malawi. Reductions in child marriage were not consistently accompanied by increases in the probability of primary school completion.
Conclusions: Eliminating tuition fees led to reductions in child marriage on a national scale in most countries despite challenges with implementation. Improving the quality of the education available may strengthen these effects and bolster progress toward numerous other public health goals.