New Study Shows that Cash Incentives Are Not Enough to Tackle Child Marriage

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Sustained multi-sectoral interventions needed to improve status of girls

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Erin Kelly 202.742.1263

WASHINGTON, D.C.  (Oct. 14)–The International Center for Research on Women released a long-awaited study that sheds light on the question of whether cash incentives can be effective tools to improve the status of girls in Haryana, India. Conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs are one of a number of innovative approaches to address the issue of child marriage in India, home to one-third of the world’s child brides.

ICRW’s study is a five-year evaluation of the CCT program Apni Beti Apna Dhan (ABAD), or “Our Daughter(s?) Our Wealth,” established by the state of Haryana in northern India, a largely rural state characterized by strong cultural preference for sons over daughters and high rates of child marriage. Although created to increase the value of daughters, the study found that the program had little effect on delaying the age of marriage for girls who participated. And while girls who participated were more likely to stay in school through the 8th grade than girls who did not participate, this did not translate into higher rates of girls in secondary and post-secondary education.

CCT programs have been used in a variety of settings as a tool to change social norms or encourage healthy behaviors, such as providing cash incentives to families when they send their daughters to school. The ABAD program was among the first long-term CCT programs in India intended to enhance the value of girls in India. Implemented by the state government between 1994 and 1998, it provided a INR 25,000 (approximately US$380) bond in the name of girls who were enrolled by their families at birth. The program was specifically targeted at low-income and lower caste families where girls are likely to be married at younger ages. The girls then could cash in the bond at age 18 if — and only if — they remained unmarried.

In 2012, the first group of beneficiary girls who enrolled in 1994 turned 18, providing ICRW a unique opportunity to assess whether economic incentives could increase the value of a girl, therefore delaying marriage and allowing her to stay in school longer. ICRW’s evaluation, which was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, collected data from more than 13,000 individuals, including girls who benefited from the bond, a control group of girls with similar demographic characteristics that did not participate in the programs and mothers of both groups.

“Our conjecture in evaluating the program was that the financial incentive in the form of a deferred payout would motivate poor families to consider girls to be a lower economic burden and to reduce the likelihood that parents will pull girls out of school and marry them early,” said Priya Nanda, lead researcher of the study. “What we found was that uprooting deep-seated discriminatory norms around girls and marriage requires more than just a simple cash transaction. Based on ICRW’s evaluations of other initiatives, it requires sustained, multi-sectoral interventions that change attitudes and aspirations for girls.”

Despite the program’s intent, the study showed that securing a good marriage remains families’ highest priority for girls. While girls who participated in the program were not less likely to be married by age 18, they were more likely to be married right at the age of 18. Many girls indicated that they used the cash benefit to pay for the wedding or to increase the dowry to the husband’s family.  If girls do stay in school longer, it is to make them more eligible for marriage. Studies beyond a certain level are still not encouraged as girls who are married and aspire to pursue a career or higher education must seek approval from parents-in-laws who value daughters-in-laws for childbearing and household labor.

ICRW’s evaluation of the ABAD program highlighted challenges in the implementation of the program, including the lack of effective communication about the intent of the program (many families understood the program to be reinforcing the notion that girls are a financial burden).   A lack of additional complementary programs for enhancing girls’ safety also limit the effectiveness of CCT programs, as fears for girls’ safety is also a key factor in not sending girls to study beyond the 8th grade. And finally, the implementation had challenges around the payout of the bond:  although promised INR 25,000 (approximately US$380), girls actually received INR 8,000-19,000 (US$120-290), which may affect people’s confidence in future CCT programs.

“This research shows that when encountering deeply complex social issues, like gender-based discrimination and early or forced marriage, there is no silver bullet,” said ICRW’s President, Sarah Degnan Kambou. “While we would have liked to have seen more positive results, it is incredibly important to know and to share information on what does not work. Having this data will help us all refine and improve programs to promote alternatives to child marriage.”

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Mission Statement:

About ICRW: For nearly 40 years, ICRW has been the premier applied research institute focused on women and girls. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., with regional offices in South Asia and Africa, ICRW provides evidence-based research to inform programs and policies that help alleviate poverty, promote gender equality and protect the rights of women and girls.