Why more and more girls are going to school in India

For decades, girls lagged behind boys in school enrolment but that trend is changing now, Samanth Subramanian reports

Girl students at a primary school in New Delhi. Vipin Kumar / Hindustan Times via Getty Images / January 29, 2014
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NEW DELHI // For the first time in the history of modern India, girls are enrolling in schools at higher rates than boys.

Government statistics for the 2014-15 academic year also showed a big surge in the rate of enrolment for girls at the secondary and higher secondary levels.

“At a national level, more kids are in school than before, and one reason is a policy and infrastructure construct that is drawing them there and keeping them longer,” said Avinash Singh, one of the founders How India Lives, a New Delhi-based firm that analyses public data.

“Even socially, there is greater acceptance, relatively speaking, of children, even girls, staying in school.”

For decades, girls lagged behind in school enrolment. Poor families preferred to spend their limited resources on educating their sons. If girls went to school at all, they would be pulled out early to get married. Daughters were expected to grow up to become homemakers, not educated professionals.

But the latest figures indicate that the trend is changing.

Mr Singh’s team drew upon nationwide data collated by the ministry of human resource development, which oversees education policy.

The data reflects the gross enrolment ratio (GER), which compares the number of students enrolled in a particular school level – regardless of their age – to the total number of children who fall into that school level’s age group.

For example, the enrolment ratio for primary school would include older students who enrolled late or were repeating grades, or younger students who enrolled early, Mr Singh said.

Even so, the statistics for 2014-15 show a heartening rise from six years ago – the period that How India Lives chose for purposes of comparison.

In 2008-09, the rate of enrolment of boys in primary school – for children between the ages of six and 13 – was calculated at 102.5 per cent, compared with 99.6 per cent for girls. However, girls overtook boys by nearly 5 percentage points in 2014-15, with an enrolment ratio of 99.2 per cent compared with 94.8 per cent.

In secondary school, for those aged 14 to 15, the enrolment ratio for boys and girls stood at 64.8 per cent and 55.5 per cent respectively in 2008-09. In 2014-15, the GER for girls surged to 78.9 per cent, marginally higher than the 78.1 per cent rate for boys.

Even in higher secondary school – attended by 16 and 17-year-olds – the ratio for both genders had achieved near parity in 2014-15. Boys had a GER of 54.6 per cent, compared with 53.8 per cent for girls. Both ratios were a sharp rise from 2008-09, when the GER was 37.2 per cent for boys and 31.6 per cent for girls.

Mr Singh credited the surge to a number of factors.

Programmes such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, launched by the federal government in 2000 to extend elementary education to every child from the ages of six to 14; state government incentives, such as the provision of free bicycles to schoolgoing girls in Bihar; and the setting up of a greater number of government and private schools are some of the reasons why more Indian children go to school today, Mr Singh said.

Additionally, the Right to Education Act passed in 2009 has made education free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 14. The new law also provided more funding for educational infrastructure.

About 58,000 government schools and 70,700 private schools were built between 2008 and 2014, according to government data.

K Satyanarayan, a Chennai-based analyst of education policy, said the rising aspirations of both parents and their daughters also contributed to the rise.

The cultural constraints of previous decades that motivated families to place less emphasis on education for girls have less impact now, he said.

Simple practical measures, such as the construction of toilets, might also have played a significant role, Mr Satyanarayan said.

When schools in rural India or in lower-income areas of cities catered primarily to boys, they often had no bathrooms for girls. This prompted some parents to hold their daughters back from school, out of concern for their modesty.

The building of more schools also means that girls have to travel shorter distances to receive an education.

Mr Satyanarayan also cited the importance of certain “pull” factors in inspiring more parents to educate their daughters.

As a result of economic growth, there are “steadily increasing opportunities for girls to join the workforce, especially in white-collar jobs in the information technology and business process outsourcing sector, as well as the retail, financial services and healthcare sectors”, he said.

“The examples that people see around them of educated girls going out to work and earning and becoming independent and self-confident” are having their effect, Mr Satyanarayan added.

“This is a huge change from the way things were about 15 to 20 years ago.”