Until recently, almost half of girls in some districts of Punjab in northeastern Pakistan were denied their basic human right to education and the many benefits that schooling confers. Low levels of girls’ schooling went hand in hand with high rates of child marriage and, subsequently, adolescent pregnancy. But early childbearing is risky for mother and baby alike, and in the mid-2000s, 259 young Pakistani women under 20 died for every 100,000 live births.

In 2003, the government of Punjab launched the Female School Stipend Program (FSSP) within a major package of education reforms, with support from the World Bank and others. To reduce the gender gap in schooling, the program provided a predictable sum of money to families whose girls regularly attended middle school.

The program targeted girls in grades 6 to 10 living in 15 districts with the lowest literacy rates.source By 2014, stipend coverage had expanded to 393,000 girls across the target districts.source The government of Punjab gave families PKR600 (US$10) per quarter for each girl in a covered grade. The stipend was large enough to cover the costs of both schooling and transport—addressing a major barrier to girls’ school attendance. For families to receive the stipend, girls had to attend school at least 80 percent of the time.

The Punjab experience shows that girls’ education can be an excellent health investment, even in challenging settings. Building on efforts to combat child marriage and early pregnancy is of utmost importance to ensure that millions of girls can access their basic human rights and thrive.

Four years after the program began, an Independent Evaluation Group of the World Bank found that the program had increased beneficiaries’ likelihood of school enrollment from 11 to 32 percent.source Girls who received the stipends were more likely to stay in school, stay enrolled through middle school, and transition into high school. The program also reduced child marriage and early pregnancy. Girls who benefited from the program postponed marriage until they were about 1.5 years older than their non-beneficiary peers.source

The FSSP cost a total of US$400 per newly enrolled girl.source Between 2011 and 2012 the program cost PKR1.5 billion (US$17.4 million) in stipends for 380,000 girls. In 2013, 411,000 girls in grades 6 to 10 were enrolled, receiving a combined US$14.2 million each year.source

The program's impressive gains resulted from several factors, chief among them the targeting strategy, programmatic design, political will, and complementary supply-side reforms. Of great significance was the priority the FSSP placed on tackling gender inequity; evidence from diverse settings has shown the merit of structuring educational cash transfer programs with gender in mind. Ultimately, the Punjab experience shows the potential of stipends in combination with girls’ education to raise marriage age and reduce fertility.