Gender differences in child development have been extensively studied in high-income countries, but few data are available from low-income and middle-income countries. Our objective was to assess gender disparities in child development that might arise from differential investment in child health, nutrition, and education in six countries across the east Asia-Pacific region.
In this cross-sectional, population-based study we quantified the magnitude of gender differences in child development using the East Asia-Pacific Early Child Development Scales (EAP-ECDS) in six countries (Cambodia, China, Mongolia, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, and Vanuatu). We used stratified random sampling (according to age, residence [urban vs rural], and sex) in all countries to recruit eligible children aged 3–5 years from non-ethnic minority populations with no identified or suspected special educational needs for whom EAP-ECDS scores for five or more of seven domains and urban-rural residence information were available. Gender differences in development associated with four national indicators of gender equality (sex ratio at birth, Gender Development Index, Gender Inequality Index, and Gender Parity Index for primary school enrolment) were also examined. We used generalised estimating equation regression to study moderation of differences by family socioeconomic status and wealth, and structural equation models with maximum likelihood to test mediation through health, nutrition, and education.
Between June 1, 2013, and Dec 13, 2013, 7582 eligible children were included from Cambodia (n=1189), China (n=1618), Mongolia (n=1230), Papua New Guinea (n=1639), Timor-Leste (n=1176), and Vanuatu (n=730). Girls had significantly higher development scores than boys in Cambodia (difference in composite score: β=1·87 points, 95% CI 0·29 to 3·45; p=0·747), China (2·66 points, 1·20 to 4·13; p=0·0004), Vanuatu (3·10 points, 1·65 to 4·55; p<0·0001), and Mongolia (3·94 points, 2·67 to 5·21; p<0·0001), but not Papua New Guinea (−0·43 points, −1·19 to 0·33; p=0·272) or Timor-Leste (0·09 points, −0·96 to 1·14; p=0·861). Differences in favour of girls were the largest for language skills in Mongolia (5·30 points, 95% CI 4·45 to 6·15); differences in language skills were smallest in the two poorest countries, Timor-Leste (−0·07 points, −1·03 to 0·88) and Papua New Guinea (0·05 points, −1·02 to 1·12). Greater differences in composite scores for girls compared with boys—in favour of girls—were associated with higher national Gender Development Index values (R2=0·790). In Mongolia, smaller gender differences in development were associated with increased household wealth (6·07 points [95% CI 3·22 to 8·92] in the lowest wealth quartile vs 2·27 points [1·38 to 3·15] in the highest wealth quartile), whereas in Timor-Leste, girls only outperformed boys when living in households with higher socioeconomic status (2·87 points [0·27 to 5·47] in the highest wealth quartile and 3·74 points [2·17 to 5·31] in the highest quartile of parental socioeconomic status). Mediating pathways explained up to 37% (in Vanuatu) of the association between gender and development, controlling for family socioeconomic status.
Girls aged 3–5 years generally outperformed boys on tests of development, and increasing levels of gender equality across six countries in the east Asia-Pacific region were associated with improved performance of young girls relative to boys. Greater opportunities for economic development are anticipated to result from improvements in gender equality and in the development of girls. Further study is warranted to understand family-level processes and societal norms that lead to gender differences in child development in the early years.
UNICEF, the Asia-Pacific Regional Network for Early Childhood, and the Open Society Foundations.