In Africa, Adolescents Who Have Premarital Sex Show Higher Dropout Rates

Lisa Melhado, Guttmacher Institute

First published online:

Young women in Ghana, Malawi and Uganda who have had premarital sex are significantly more likely than those who have not had sex to drop out before completing secondary school (odds ratios, 1.9–3.2).1 Premarital sex is not associated with dropping out among young women in Burkina Faso, however, and among young men it is associated with dropping out only in Uganda (1.7). In all four countries, young women enrolled in school at the outset of adolescence are more likely than their male counterparts to leave school before completing a primary education, to leave after completing a primary education but before beginning secondary school and to leave before completing secondary school (1.3–2.1).

As the level of formal education has increased throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, so too has the number of students attending school after puberty begins. At the same time, age at marriage has increased and the proportion of adolescents and young adults engaging in premarital sex has generally risen, so that adolescents must negotiate sexual maturation and sexual debut during their school years. Few studies have examined the relationship between sexual behavior and educational outcomes among adolescents in Sub-Saharan Africa; fewer still have examined these associations among male adolescents.

In an analysis of data from nationally representative, household-based surveys conducted in 2004 among male and female 12–19-year-olds in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi and Uganda, researchers examined relationships between premarital sex and leaving school among respondents who had been attending school at age 12. The participating countries represent different regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, have different educational systems (in terms of duration of primary schooling and fees) and have different levels of adolescent sexual activity, thus permitting examination of whether the relationship between sexual behavior and education outcomes varies in diverse contexts. Respondents provided a variety of social and demographic information, including age, marital status, socioeconomic status, place of residence, household head's educational attainment, and the ages at which they had first had sex, started school and left school. The three outcomes of interest were leaving school prior to completing the primary grades, after completing primary school but before going on to secondary school, and prior to completing secondary school. Discrete-time hazard models estimated with logistic regression were used for each schooling outcome.

Among 18–19-year-olds who had been attending school at age 12 and had completed primary school, half or more reported that they had had sex (49–74%), except in Ghana, where 31% of males and 44% of females had done so. In Ghana and Uganda, higher proportions of females than males in this group had had premarital sex, whereas the reverse was true in Malawi. The proportion of respondents in this group who had had premarital sex while in school ranged from 16% in Ghana to 54% in Malawi among males, and from 18% in Ghana to 37% in Uganda among females; only in Malawi was the proportion among males significantly different from that among females (54% vs. 27%).

In all four countries, females who were still in school at age 12 were more likely than males to drop out before completing secondary school (odds ratios, 1.3–2.0). A similar pattern was apparent at the primary level: In every country but Burkina Faso, females were more likely than males to drop out before completing primary school (1.6–1.8), and in Uganda and Burkina Faso, females who had completed primary school were more likely than their male counterparts to not go on to secondary school (1.4 and 2.1, respectively).

Premarital sex was associated with dropping out of school in three of the four countries. For females, the odds of dropping out before completing secondary school were elevated approximately twofold in Malawi and Uganda (odds ratios, 1.9–2.0), and more than threefold in Ghana (3.2), among those who had had premarital sex. For males, the odds of dropping out were elevated only in Uganda (1.7). Premarital sex was associated with leaving school prior to completing a primary education in Ghana (5.3) and Malawi (1.9) among females, and in Uganda (1.6) among males. Among other individual and household variables, the ones most consistently associated with leaving primary or secondary school were urban residence and household head's educational attainment, each of which was negatively associated with dropping out in about half of the country–gender combinations.

Overall, the findings suggest that in the four countries examined, females are more vulnerable than males to leaving school once they have matured sexually and had premarital sex. The researchers note that their findings "can help make researchers, policymakers, and program managers aware that the timing of sexual intercourse and leaving school are related, even in countries with very different educational systems and demographic characteristics." They suggest that "the next step is to examine in depth the mechanisms through which sexual activity leads to a higher risk of leaving school for girls."

—L. Melhado


1. Biddlecom A et al., Associations between premarital sex and leaving school in four Sub-Saharan African countries, Studies in Family Planning, 2008, 39(4): 337–350.