Promotion of girls’ education has been central to policymaking across the globe, especially in developing countries. Girls tend to drop-out early from schools and restrictive gender norms often manifest themselves in early marriage. India is no exception to this malaise. Gender disparities in educational outcomes still persist.

According to the Indian Census 2011, the effective literacy rate for males was 82.14 per cent whereas the same for females was 65.46 per cent. The Global Gender Gap Report (2021) ranked India at 114 out of 156 countries based on educational attainment. However, educating women in a developing country generates both direct and indirect social returns: education empowers women to make better decision about marriage, family planning, etc., and educated mothers pave the way for improved health (reduced infant mortality rates, higher immunisation rates, etc.) and educational outcomes (for example, increased years of schooling) of their children).

Against this backdrop, a number of gender-specific programmes have been implemented over the years to close the gaps. In 2015, the government launched the flagship programme, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao(BBBP). The key objectives of the programme are to promote girls’ survival and their educational outcome. According to the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare, the overall goal of the BBBP scheme is to prevent gender biased sex selective elimination; ensure survival and protection of the girl child; and ensure her education.

Women-centric schemes

To this end, a number of States had also introduced female-centric schemes. Conditional cash transfer (example, Apna Beti Apna Dhan inHaryana, Ladli Laxmi Yojana inMadhya Pradesh, Kanyashree inWest Bengal), providing free sanitary napkins (example, She Pad scheme in Kerala), and State-funded bicycle programme (Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana in Bihar) are examples of such state-level interventions.

The BBBP programme was implemented in 100 districts mostly having child sex ratio (CSR) below the national average (918 girls per 1,000 boys) in the first phase in 2015 and, subsequently, it was extended to another 61 districts during phase 2 in 2016.

Coming to financing of the programme, as per the report of the Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women (2021), the total budgetary allocation by the Central Government for the programme during 2015-2019 was to the tune of ₹8.48 billion, of which, only₹6.22 billion was released to the States.

In a recent study, we examined the impact of BBBP programme on girls’ educational and learning outcomes. In order to make a causal inference, we compared gender gaps in outcome variables between districts with and without exposure to the BBBP programme.

Using data available from nationally representative surveys, we found that the BBBP programme had no discernible impact on probability of a girl being enrolled in school, girls’ grade completion, and girl-specific educational expenditure.

With respect to learning outcomes, again we did not find any evidence of statistically significant impact on girls’ reading ability (for example, ability to identify letters, read words, etc.) and math skills (for example, recognise numbers 1-9, doing subtraction, etc.). In sum, our empirical study found no salutary effect of the BBBP programme.

Infrastructural gaps

We also conducted qualitative interviews with parents of girl children to gain a nuanced understanding of female education in India. The interviews revealed that while awareness about sending girls to school was generally high, parents faced infrastructural gaps that limit their ability to enroll and sustain the girls in schools. Distance to school, availability of safe transport, hygienic toilet facilities in school, and so on, were some of the factors that discouraged parents from continuing their girls in school.

Interestingly, the Parliamentary Standing Committee Report found that more than 78 per cent of the funds were spent on media advertisements and generating campaign material, but the utilisation in the multi-sectoral interventions have been quite meagre — hovering around only 16 per cent. The said report also documented gross underutilisation of funds allocated for the programme by the States.

Our study clearly articulates that mere gender-based awareness campaigns are not enough to provide solutions to this difficult problem unless suitable policies are undertaken to improve school infrastructure, school-level inputs such as teachers, textbooks, as well as reduced distance for commute to school, safe modes of transport, safe and hygienic toilets and raising awareness to challenge the cultural and social norms.

This calls for a multipronged-multi-sectoral approach to attenuate the existing gender gaps in education in India.

Mukhopadhyay and Mishra are Associate Professor of Economics and doctoral scholar, respectively, at IFMR Graduate School of Business, Krea University. Mitra is the Principal Economist of IWWAGE, LEAD at Krea University