The impact of women's empowerment on their children's early development in 26 African countries

Fernanda Ewerling, John W Lynch, Murthy Mittinty, Anita Raj, Cesar G. Victora, Carolina V. N. Coll, Aluisio J. D. Barros

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Every year more than 200 million children under-five years fail to achieve their full developmental potential in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Although women's empowerment has been associated with improved child health and development outcomes, this is a topic little studied in LMICs. We investigated the associations between women's empowerment and early childhood development among a sample population of 84537 children aged 36-59 months from national health surveys of 26 African countries.


We used data from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) and Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) ranging from 2010 to 2018. Four developmental domains were assessed among children using the Early Childhood Development Index: literacy-numeracy, physical, learning and socioemotional. Women's empowerment in attitude to violence, social independence and decision-making was evaluated using the SWPER global, a validated survey-based index. We reported effect sizes for each country and a combined estimate of the association. The study covers all countries with surveys in the region and uses a novel approach for measuring women's empowerment, the SWPER.


Across all countries, 15.1% of the children were on track in the literacy-numeracy domain, 92.3% in physical, 81.3% in learning and 67.8% in socio-emotional. The odds of a child being on track in literacy-numeracy increased by 34% (odds ratio (OR) = 1.34; 95% confidence interval (CI) = 1.31-1.37), 88% (OR = 1.88; 95% CI = 1.85-1.91) and 34% (OR = 1.34; 95% CI = 1.291.39), with a one standard deviation increase in the scores of attitudes to violence, social independence and decision-making domains of empowerment, respectively. No effect of empowerment was observed for the other domains of child development.


Our results show a consistent positive effect of empowerment on the literacy-numeracy domain of child development cross-nationally in Africa and this was particularly evident for the social independence domain of the SWPER. Programs and interventions may also consider addressing the reduction of gender inequalities to improve child development.

Original languageEnglish
Article number020406
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Global Health
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Children
  • Early development
  • low- and middle-income countries (LMICs)
  • Empowerment
  • Women
  • Child health outcomes
  • Child development outcomes


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