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Can Money As An Incentive Change How India Thinks About Its Daughters?

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By Dr. T.V. Shekhar

Since centuries, India has experienced gender discrimination and the fundamental reason for son preference is because of economic interpretation by parents on the perceived differentials in the expected returns from girls and boys. Hence, CCTs (Conditional Cash Transfer Programmes) targeting girl children have been introduced to address this existing economic imbalance between parents of girls and parents of boys. It is not advisable and is politically incorrect for governments to tax boys or their families. The alternative solution is introducing subsidies for girls in order to counterbalance the perceived economic disadvantages of having daughters. In India, there are about 25 CCT programmes aimed at the welfare of girls. The financial incentives provided under various CCT schemes include cash paid at the time of birth of the girl, money given for immunisations and enrolment in Anganwadis, cash paid for enrolment in primary school and retention up to eighth or tenth class, and cash paid when they complete 18 years of age.

girl child india
Image source: Harsha K R/Flickr

The ongoing CCT programmes are complicated with multiple objectives and targeted at specific groups like poor households, socially disadvantaged groups, families having girls and families having only girls. These CCT schemes, popularly known as ladli-lakshmi schemes, provide instant financial incentives and support long-term benefits to the girl’s family, starting from the birth of the girl till her marriage. Though many CCT schemes in India emerged as the government’s reaction to address the alarmingly skewed sex ratio among children, the girl child schemes have a wider scope and can also have an impact on conditions promoting girl’s education and preventing child marriage.

It may also be possible that CCTs contribute to a gradual change in the attitude of parents and society towards girls. Most of the CCT programmes are relatively new, not even evaluated, and very little is known about their implementation and outcome. A study sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) for the first time examined 15 girl child promotion schemes and came out with interesting findings and useful suggestions for better implementation (Sekher, 2010). It was observed that CCT is an effective strategy to channelize the limited resources to poor households. There is a need to simplify the schemes by minimising the conditions applied and the administrative procedures. All these schemes, explicitly and implicitly, intend to enhance the value of girls in their families. It also provides financial benefits to encourage education and healthcare of girls. The conditionality mechanisms and financial transfers are designed to promote positive attitudinal changes among the beneficiary households to make them more active and responsible citizens, rather than being passive recipients of charity from the government. Since the impact of the scheme is more visible among the lower economic strata, it would be advisable to target the poor households with more attractive financial incentives

Though CCTs give governments the scope to positively discriminate in favour of girls, it is still not clear how far they have led to a change in the attitude towards girls. Discussions with local leaders, NGOs and school teachers, however, illustrate that a favourable attitude towards girl’s education is growing in the villages. One important observation that has emerged is that most families now feel ‘less burdened’ in having daughters because of the financial support they receive. What is more important is that not only a favourable attitude and atmosphere for educating the girls is created, it is also ensured that girls get the educational facilities in the neighbourhood.

One important objective of many CCT schemes is to prevent child marriages. To get the terminal benefit, the girl should remain unmarried till she is 18. The willingness shown by parents in delaying the marriage of their daughters shows their longing for the lump sum money offered under the scheme. This is more so among the economically weaker households. The age-at-marriage of beneficiary girls may increase not only because of this but also because of the scheme’s insistence that the girl continues her education up to a certain level (for some schemes it is up to tenth standard), which delays their marriage.

Evidence from across the world convincingly illustrate that ensuring education of girls and their retention in schools is the best and most effective way to delay early marriages. Poor families value the money received from the scheme as it not only helps in supporting the girl’s education but also of her siblings. Financial incentives play an enabling role in removing the perception of daughters as a liability. It is evident that financial incentives through CCT schemes can drive positive changes in an otherwise resistant social environment. Lessons learnt: The registration of birth, child immunisation and enrolment in primary schools have improved considerably in many states though it is still a challenge in many remote rural districts of India. So the schemes addressing these backward areas need to take care of the situation. However, it is time now to focus more on education at the secondary level and above, as well as on vocational and skill training of adolescent girls, further enhancing their age-at-marriage. Many of the financial incentives given in early childhood years of the girl can now be shifted to their adolescent years for better impact. Given the prevailing diversity in socioeconomic conditions and the availability of education and health facilities, there can be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of conditional cash transfer. But instead of providing the benefits to all households irrespective of their economic conditions, it would be appropriate to target the poor households with enhanced and more attractive incentives.

The increasing number of CCT schemes across the states clearly indicates that political leadership across party lines is in favour of large-scale financial incentive schemes which they believe is electorally rewarding. Large funds earmarked by the governments for the purpose shows the importance and priority being given to the girl child promotion schemes. What is required now is a better designed and well-targeted programme with all administrative and financial arrangements in place. Studies have observed that there is practically no grievance redressal mechanism even after years of its implementation (Sekher, 2012). The duplication of schemes needs to be avoided in order to effectively channelise the limited resources to the deprived children. Over the decades, governments have developed greater familiarity in delivering physical goods and services to enhance the wellbeing of people but has very little experiential learning on providing and monitoring income transfers closer to the point of impact. In that sense, the introduction of CCT schemes poses a formidable capacity development challenge.

It is also relevant to mention here that if CCT programmes intend to change the parental attitudes, the quantum of benefit has to be sufficiently large enough to induce changes in the mindset and social behaviour. In order to ensure education and employability of girls so as to improve their social status, structuring of financial incentives is required. Financial incentives also dent attitudes and lessen the burden perception of having daughters. Government’s willingness to invest in girls motivates the parents to also invest in them. Research evidences so far strongly advocate the need for continuation of CCT schemes for girls by restructuring the incentives, modifying the conditionalities, simplifying the procedures, and more importantly, targeting the poor and socially disadvantaged households.

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