The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) has released a summary of initial research findings from its ongoing evaluation of a state government program to delay girls’ age of marriage and enhance girls’ value in India.
“Impact of Conditional Cash Transfers on Girls Education,” was made public during ICRW’s March Passports to Progress event in celebration of International Women’s Day.
The summary is based on ICRW’s continuing evaluation of the Apni Beti Apna Dhan (ABAD) or “Our Daughter, Our Wealth” conditional cash transfer program that took place in the Indian state of Haryana. Implemented from 1994 to 1998, the program targeted girls born to poor and disadvantaged caste groups. The incentive included 500 Indian rupees to mothers within days of delivering a daughter. Upon enrollment in the program, the government provided a savings bond in the girl’s name for an amount that would mature to approximately 25,000 rupees or $400. The bond was redeemable once the girl turned 18 – only if she remained unmarried.
Early marriage is common in India; 46 percent of girls marry before the age of 18, making India home to the largest proportion of child brides in the world. To try to combat the practice, the government over the last 15 years has initiated multiple national and state-sponsored conditional cash transfer (CCTs) programs with an indirect or direct aim of delaying marriage among girls.
ABAD was among the first of such programs. And what made it unique among all large-scale CCT interventions in India was that its beneficiaries faced a protracted 18-year period before receiving a one–time cash transfer. Newer cash incentive programs provide frequent payments when participants reach certain milestones, such as enrolling in school and immunizing children. ABAD was one of the first generation of programs that had a long-term protracted benefit.
The initial cohort of beneficiaries turned 18 in 2012-2013, marking the first opportunity to assess ABAD’s affect on girls’ lives. In the new summary, ICRW researchers document findings related to the program’s impact on girls’ educational attainment. Researchers will conduct another survey of girls later this year to determine ABAD’s effect on delaying marriage.
Based on a survey with more than 9,000 eligible beneficiary and non-beneficiary girls, ICRW found that the government-led effort indeed made a difference for those who participated: Beneficiaries of the program were more likely to stay in school and less likely to drop out than those who did not participate in ABAD. Among girls who dropped out, beneficiary girls attained higher levels of education than non-beneficiary girls.
Still, education for girls remains fraught with contradictions. ICRW’s research shows that while education for girls in Haryana is expanding – there are more government schools and financial incentive programs to help families cover school costs – it remains a very limited space for them. Even more, education is valued quite differently for boys and girls. Educating a boy is deemed essential to enhance his future job and economic prospects, whereas educating a girl is primarily tied to making her more attractive for marriage.
“The role of education in girls’ lives and its potential to really enhance their job opportunities and economic agency are undermined by the prevailing gender roles and expectations,” said Priya Nanda, director of reproductive health and economic empowerment programs for ICRW’s Asia Regional Office. Nanda directed the study and co-authored the summary.
Parents are also reluctant to send their daughters outside of their village to pursue secondary-level education for fear of girls’ safety in public – in particular that they’ll be at risk of sexual violence. “Preserving their chastity underlies all significant decisions that parents in Haryana make for their daughters,” Nanda said, “and that has a profound impact on the path that girls’ lives take after puberty.”
ICRW found that even though ABAD succeeded in keeping more girls in school, the cash incentive program may not have shifted perceptions about girls in Haryana, which for centuries has had a “very perverse” sex ratio.
Researchers say that’s largely due to deeply entrenched gender norms and expectations, particularly those that prioritize girls’ roles as future wives above everything else. This limits the impact of education on girls’ empowerment. And it suggests that other interventions need to take place in simultaneously to help girls fulfill their potential.
“Keeping girls in school isn’t enough,” Nanda said. “Looking to the future, and based on our initial findings, we believe that conditional cash transfer programs have to also address attitudes and aspirations of everyone – parents, community members, elders.”
“We have to address the underlying values about girls for these kind of financial incentive programs to trigger sustainable change.”
Gillian Gaynair is an independent writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.