HOW TO REDUCE RISKY SEXUAL BEHAVIOUR IN YOUNG PEOPLE: Invite them to attend vocational training and inspirational talks

Young people who are offered vocational training and an inspirational talk are more likely to delay early parenthood, reduce transactional sex and increase HIV testing. These are the central findings of new research conducted in Malawi, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2019 annual conference at the University of Warwick in April 2019.


The study by Ericka Rascon Ramirez (Middlesex University) and co-authors Victor Orozco (World Bank and University of Oxford) and Maria Jones (World Bank) analyses data from a randomised control trial that took place between 2010 and 2011.


The trial consisted of inviting young people aged 14-24 living in vulnerable conditions in Malawi to attend a vocational training programme for an average of three months. A random selection of 50% of those who attended the vocational training also received an inspirational talk.


The main findings suggest differential effects by gender and age. These are the effects of being invited to a vocational training with respect to a ‘control’ group, who did not receive the training:


  • Early parenthood was reduced by half for women, but there was no effect on men.
  • The demand for transactional sex was reduced by less than half for women, but there was no effect on men. HIV testing was increased by a third for both men and women.

The researchers also provide evidence on the effects of being invited to a vocational training and an inspirational talk with respect to the control group:

  • The effects on early parenthood and HIV testing for adolescents (14-19 years old) were twice as large as for those observed for older adults (20-24 years old).
  • The supply of transactional sex was nearly eliminated for women, but there was no effect on men.

The study notes that vocational training programmes may have impacts beyond the labour market by providing technical skills and thereby increasing human capital investment. These programmes also increase the opportunity cost of early childbearing and risky sexual behaviour, such as unprotected and transactional sex.


The demand for and supply of transactional sex might also be affected by vocational training programmes, though the direction of its impact is unclear. If transactional sex is used as a source of income, by increasing human capital, the supply of transactional sex may decrease. But if it is used as a normal good and vocational training increases trainees’ incomes, the demand for transactional sex may increase after the intervention.


Complementarily, inspirational talks may also decrease early childbearing and increase HIV testing if such talks increase confidence and self-esteem. Soft skills may increase or decrease transactional sex depending on whether the person supplies or demands the service.


The authors find that the effects of hard skills (vocational training programmes) may have been underestimated in previous studies by neglecting the possible effects on non-labour market outcomes. The authors also observe that such programmes have differential effects for men and women, as well as for adolescents and young adults.


One policy appeal of scaling up effective ‘soft skills add-on’ components is their low cost. The inspirational talk lasted for 20 minutes and their cost per beneficiary was under US$15. In contrast, the vocational training lasted an average of three months and the cost per beneficiary was over US$1,000.


Based on this study, vocational training programmes could be more effective for young populations if complemented with soft skills.