Although "schoolgirl pregnancy" is commonly thought to be a key reason why many young women in developing countries do not complete their education, an analysis of Demographic and Health Survey data indicate that early pregnancy and marriage generally account for only about 20% of school dropouts among female adolescents in Sub-Saharan Africa.1 Of the two causes, it is union formation, rather than pregnancy, that is most likely to precipitate dropping out. Moreover, as rates of early marriage and childbearing have declined in the region, so too has the risk of leaving school for either reason.

While policymakers and the media often cite pregnancy and marriage as the primary drivers for female adolescents' leaving school prematurely (i.e., before completion of secondary school) in Sub-Saharan Africa, the circumstances that predispose young women to have premarital sex or to marry early, such as poverty and poor school performance, may themselves lead students to drop out. To determine the relative importance of these various factors, researchers analyzed data on reproductive and educational outcomes from Demographic and Health Surveys conducted in 1994–1999 in 20 Sub-Saharan African countries. In the surveys, women of reproductive age who were no longer in school were asked to give the primary reason they left school and, in five of the countries, the age at which they left. The researchers examined how frequently women said that pregnancy or marriage was the main reason that they left school, and whether these reasons were more commonly cited in countries with high rates of early marriage and childbearing. These analyses were restricted to women aged 20–24.

In addition, for the five countries (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Togo) for which data were available on the age at which women left school, the researchers calculated three estimates of the probability that a young woman would leave school by age 20 as a result of pregnancy or marriage. The first estimate was simply the probability that a woman would report that she left school prematurely and that she did so because of pregnancy or early marriage. The second estimate consisted of the proportion of women who left school prematurely and who gave birth or married around the same time (i.e., their age at childbirth or marriage was within a year of their age when they left school); although these women did not necessarily attribute their leaving school to marriage or pregnancy, the analysis assumed that these events were directly related. The third estimate included women who fit either of the first two categories and served as the upper-limit estimate. These analyses were conducted for two cohorts: women who were aged 15–24 at the time of the survey and those who were aged 35–44.

The proportion of women aged 20–24 who had ever attended school ranged from 18% in Burkina Faso to 96–98% in Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. In 14 of the 20 countries, more than 80% of those who had attended school reported leaving school early. Among those who left school prematurely, the proportion who reported that pregnancy was the primary reason ranged from 1% in Niger to 31% in South Africa; however, the proportion was no more than 10% in 15 countries and no more than 5% in nine. Similarly, the proportion of those who cited marriage as their primary reason for leaving school ranged from 3% in Côte d'Ivoire and Togo to 28% in Chad; again, in most countries, the proportion was no more than 10%. The countries with higher rates of dropout due to marriage were generally not the same as those with higher rates due to pregnancy.

Moreover, countries with high levels of early marriage (i.e., by age 18) did not necessarily have high proportions of women who cited marriage as their reason for leaving school. For example, in eight of the 20 countries, more than half of women marry by age 18; these countries include not only Chad and Nigeria, where relatively high proportions (26–28%) of women who left school did so primarily because of marriage, but also Burkina Faso and Niger, where only 3–5% of women who left school did so primarily because of marriage. Similarly, there was little correlation between the rate of early childbearing in a country and the likelihood that women in that country would cite pregnancy as their reason for leaving school.

In the five countries with detailed data on the age at which young women left school, the probability that a respondent in the younger cohort would leave school prematurely and attribute the decision to pregnancy ranged from 3% in Burkina Faso to 10% in Cameroon. The upper-limit estimates, though higher, were lower than 10% in every country but Cameroon (17%). For marriage, the first estimates ranged from 1% in Togo and Côte d'Ivoire to 7% in Guinea, and the upper-limit estimates ranged from 12% in Togo to 22% in Cameroon. The upper-limit estimates suggest that young women were more likely to leave school because of early marriage than because of pregnancy. In addition, the upper-limit estimates indicate that in four of the five countries, childbirth and marriage together accounted for only about 20% of dropouts among young women.

Comparisons between the estimates for women aged 15–24 and those for the 35–44-year-old cohort indicate that the risk of leaving school because of pregnancy or marriage has declined. In Côte d'Ivoire, for example, the upper-limit estimate of the probability that a woman in the older cohort had left school because of marriage or childbirth was double that of a woman in the younger cohort (49% vs. 22%).

Given the study's findings, the authors conclude that for young women in franco-phone Africa, "the risks of leaving school during adolescence for reasons other than childbirth or marriage far exceed the risks associated with these demographic events." They add that schooling may be a protective factor against pregnancy and early marriage, because despite recent declines in the age at puberty and increases in the proportion of females attending school after puberty, the risk of school-leaving because of pregnancy has diminished. The researchers recommend that more complete retrospective data be gathered to facilitate "an exploration of the conditions that contribute simultaneously to greater schooling success and better reproductive health in adolescence."—L. Melhado


1. Lloyd CB and Mensch BS, Marriage and childbirth as factors in dropping out from school: an analysis of DHS data from Sub-Saharan Africa, Population Studies, 2008, 62(1):1–13.