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Special Content

Issue no 28 , 09-15 October 2021

Empowering Girls Beyond Education


Dr. Yogesh Suri and Ms. Shruti Khanna

Embarking upon the journey to reach the 75th year of independence from British Rule, India has witnessed revolutionary changes on the front of women's status in the society - from the age of Sati and dowry to the 21st century India wherein women have outperformed their male counterparts at Tokyo Olympics. This change from subjugation and exploitation to a position of equality and empowerment merits looking at the levers and contributors of women's progress in the modern era.

India has successfully broken the “low literacy trap”

Female literacy has increased multi-fold since independence from 9% in 1951 to 65% in the Census 2011. While the same increased from 27% in 1951 to 81% in 2011 for males indicating a narrower but persisting gender gap in education. Until recently, not many girls would enroll or complete their primary education. However, several affirmative policy actions have contributed to the steep progress of gender equity, particularly in education. This is reflected in the increase in gross enrolment ratio of girls to 98.7% at the elementary level, 90.5% at the upper primary level, and 52.4% at higher secondary level in 2019-20, as per UDISE (Unified District Information System for Education)-data. Further, the UDISE+ Report of 2019- 20 reveals that the enrolment of girls from primary to secondary is more than 12.08 crore, showcasing a substantial increase by 14.08 lakh compared to 2018-19. Similarly, at the higher education level, narrowing the gap between girls and boys has been witnessed, with 49% of college students being females, according to the latest All India Survey on Higher Education. Nonetheless, more remains to be done. As revealed by a recent report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, around 39.4% of girls aged 15-18 years are still not attending any educational institute across India. This problem is exacerbated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has had a severe impact on females, threatening the decades of progress made in gender equality and women's rights.

Educating and empowering girls and women and closing the global gender gap is critical to achieving the Agenda 2030 and Sustainable Development Goals: Goal 5 - achieve gender equality, Goal 8 - promote full and productive employment and decent work for all, Goal 1 - end poverty, Goal 2 - achieve food security, Goal 3- ensure health, Goal 10 -reduce inequalities. However, it is important to note that girls' empowerment goes beyond bringing girls into the educational system. It is also about creating an equal world where everyone has the chance to complete all levels of education. It is about creating equal opportunities to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in an ever-changing world, make their own life decisions, and contribute to their communities and society. In this light, today's challenges for improving girls' education, skills, and job prospects have changed. The years after school/college require the most attention. With a rapidly transforming and globalizing world, there is a need to educate and equip girls and young women with skills that will enable them to have equal opportunities in the labor market and thereby become equal contributors to the country's growth.

World Bank has suggested a five-step framework called "Skills Towards Employment and Productivity" to achieve the above objectives. The framework underscores a system of sequenced combination of education, training, and labor market activities as per the life cycle of a person, a girl, in this case, to impart skills needed for productivity and economic growth. The good news is that for each step of the framework, the Government of India has already rolled out a series of interventions that have helped girls and young women to fulfill their potential to make strategic choices in life.

Steps to empower girls and young women beyond education- enhancing skills and job prospects:

Step 1: Building a solid foundation through early childhood development (ECD). Research shows that shortcomings in early life are difficult to remedy, but with good ECD programs, one can avoid such disadvantages. ECD programs focus on building technical, cognitive, and behavioral skills conducive to high productivity in later life. The Government of India has implemented various schemes and programs emphasizing nutrition, stimulation, and cognitive skills in child development. Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme focuses on the holistic development of children up to 6 years of age and on meeting the nutritional requirements of pregnant women and lactating mothers. National Nutrition Mission (NNM) - also known as POSHAN Abhiyaan is another step to cater to the nutrition as well as early developmental needs of the child; and Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) aims at creating a safe and secure environment for the overall development of children in need of care and protection in urban and semiurban areas.

Step 2: : Basic education - ensuring that all students learn by building stronger systems with clear learning standards, good teachers, adequate resources, and a proper environment. The central government has implemented a series of schemes/programs, including the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (BBBP) scheme, which aims to bring behavioral changes in the society towards birth, education, and issues related to girls' empowerment over a life-cycle continuum. The success of BBBP is visible in terms of improvement in Sex Ratio at Birth from 918 in 2014-15 to 934 in 2019-20. Also, the gross enrolment ratio of girls at the secondary level improved from 77.45% to 81.32%, as per the progress report by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. Some major interventions undertaken by the central government to promote basic education by improving access and availability of good quality infrastructure include Mid-day Meals at school, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, Right to Education Act, 2009, Sukanya Samridhi Yojana that aims to encourage parents to build a fund for the future education of their female child, and Samagra Shiksha - an Integrated Scheme for School Education (ISSE) implemented by Department of Education and Literacy, Ministry of Education, to increase participation of girls in education through interventions like providing free textbooks to girls up to Class VIII, giving stipend to girls with special needs. Further, both center and the state governments provide various scholarships to girl children to ease their access to education. Various state initiatives complement the center's efforts. Such initiatives include Ladli Yojana in Delhi and Haryana, Bhagyalaxmi Scheme in Karnataka, Saraswati bicycle scheme in Chhattisgarh.

Step 3: Focus on providing girls and young women with relevant job skills that employers demand by developing the right incentive framework for preemployment and on-the-job training programs and institutions. Despite implementing programs such as the Scheme for Adolescent Girls (SAG) to empower girls in the age group of 11-18 years through nutrition, life skills, home skills, and vocational training courses, the scope for girls to get equipped with job-relevant skills remains limited. One possible reason could be that vocational courses for girls are highly gendered - typing, tailoring, etc., which only allows them entry into low-paying jobs in the unorganized sector.

Step 4: Creating an environment that encourages investments in knowledge and creativity.

Step 5: Emphasis on matching the supply of skills with the demand by moving towards a more flexible, efficient, and secure labour market. Though India is making fast development in attaining parity in basic education, there is still a significant gender disparity in labour force participation, with young women having a lower participation rate than men. According to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) India Study, women's involvement in the domestic labour force has decreased from 34% in 2006 to 24.8% in 2020. Gender stereotypes and a lack of infrastructure cause women's exclusion from core industrial functions and, as a result, a reduced female presence in leadership positions. Women's economic empowerment promotes productivity, diversifies the economy, and increases income when they work more. For instance, UNGC India Study Report found that increased women's participation in the labour force to the same level as men will help in boosting India's GDP by 27%. For more women to enter into the labour force, the need of the hour is to invest more in equipping women with job-relevant skills while breaking the stereotypes associated with the work they can do. Transforming skills into actual employment matters more to the girls as they often have limited access to opportunities due to social and cultural barriers.

Thus, in addition to celebrating India's progress in improving gender equality in education, ensuring equal access to all levels of education and training to develop job-relevant skills and improved job prospects for women in society needs a tremendous collective effort.

When a girl child is educated, the entire family is educated. Let us all work together to ensure that all of our girls are empowered beyond education and contribute to creating a New India.

(Dr. Yogesh Suri is Senior Adviser- Governance and Research Vertical, and Ms. Shruti Khanna is Associate - Governance and Research Vertical at NITI Aayog). (Views expressed are personal)