Almost 28 years since Amartya Sen wrote about India’s challenge of “missing women”, the Economic Survey 2017-18 acknowledges it as one of the most pressing problems faced by our country. Although the Survey finds improvement in a number of women empowerment indicators, it also shows how the skewed sex ratio in India has led to gender inequality.

There are 63 million missing women and 21 million unwanted girls in the country, an alarming reality as it puts India behind countries such as Rwanda, with its history of genocide and discrimination. Rwanda ranks fifth in gender parity according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2016, where India ranks 87. While PM Modi on National Women’s Day in March this year proclaimed female foeticide a matter of “national shame” and announced the expansion of the “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” scheme, it is important to reflect and ask, what have we learned in the past 30 years on developing effective policies to restore India’s sex ratio? We can begin our search for answers by re-examining the assumption that information campaigns alone can change behaviour. The government in recent times has focussed on changing behaviour towards the girl child through the direct instruction approach, using information campaigns like Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao . The challenge of using information campaigns is that education in itself has not reduced India’s preference for boys.

The education conundrum

In India, the educated are more likely to engage in illegal sex selective abortions, to the extent that they are able to afford it, according to a 2011 study. Further, the Health Index released by the NITI Aayog in February shows that in recent years, the girl-to-boy sex ratio at birth has dropped in 17 out of 21 large States in India, including West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Only in Bihar, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh has the sex ratio improved.

This suggests that although the government has focussed on awareness programmes to change mindset, the issue is much more complex. Information alone may not be sufficient for families to change their behaviour, especially on deeply entrenched issues with social and economic ramifications such as son preference.

While rigorous research has not been conducted to measure the impact of information campaigns on improving the sex ratio, we can find useful insights in the larger literature on information campaigns and behaviour change. A randomised evaluation conducted by a researcher affiliated with The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) in India measured whether the provision of job information improved female employment and reduced discrimination against girls.

As part of the study, recruiters held information sessions in randomly selected villages to explain to women the nature of BPO jobs, compensation levels, necessary qualifications, and application procedures. The study found that the spread of information helped women find jobs, encouraged parents to invest in daughters’ education, and significantly delayed the age of marriage and childbearing.

Another randomised evaluation by a J-PAL affiliated researcher found that in the effort to reduce the spread of HIV, teenage girls are highly responsive to risk information, which can then lead to behaviour change as they prefer to calculate the costs and benefits themselves. These studies suggest the merit in including risk information in campaigns that target improvements in sex ratio, and then giving people the agency to make better-informed decisions themselves.

Cash transfer schemes

In addition to information campaigns, another common approach that governments take to encourage behaviour change is direct cash transfers. Multiple State governments, including West Bengal, Haryana and others, have implemented conditional and unconditional cash transfer schemes like Kanyashree, Ladli, and Devirupak to motivate families to educate girls and thereby improve gender parity in the long run. While there is dearth of rigorous scientific evidence to establish how effective cash transfer schemes are in improving the sex ratio, we do have evidence that suggest cash transfers can be an useful intervention to bring about behaviour change.

In Malawi, for example, a randomised evaluation by J-PAL affiliated researchers examined the impact of cash transfers on improving education and health outcomes and reducing discrimination against girls. The study found that conditional cash transfers increased school attendance and reduced HIV prevalence while unconditional transfers were more effective in helping girls delay marriage and childbearing age.

Marriage and childbearing habits are deeply entrenched behaviour, therefore these results suggest that conditional and unconditional cash transfers may be effective in generating behaviour change related to the similarly entrenched phenomenon of son preference. To better understand the potential of this approach, more rigorous evaluations should be conducted to measure the impact of cash transfers programmes aimed at improving gender parity.

Further insight into this issue can be drawn from research by a J-PAL affiliate which suggests that as fertility rates continue to decline, the sex ratio is at risk of becoming even more skewed. A related study that looked into Devirupak scheme in Haryana found that son preference increased sharply when families were planning to have fewer children in total.

Although giving birth to only one daughter was more remunerative according to the scheme, it did not increase the proportion of families with one daughter and no son. More couples chose to have one son and receive smaller remuneration. These findings suggest cash transfers may fail to improve the sex ratio if reducing the fertility rate is also targeted at the same time. Evidence from these research studies suggests the effectiveness of cost-benefit campaigns which present the risks and opportunities associated with certain behaviours, and empower people to make their own decisions. It also suggests that conditional cash transfers are a useful intervention for behavioural change.

Further, programmes intended to rebalance the sex ratio may experience conflicting effects if they target both an improved sex ratio as well as a reduction in family size. Few rigorous studies have been conducted to assess long-term impacts of government programmes that aim to address skewed sex ratio. More evidence should be generated in order to inform policy that can sustainably improve the sex ratio and bring back India’s missing women.

The writer works with The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. The views expressed are personal