Why are teenage girls not going to school?

By Rachel Wilder

The draft National Education Policy released this June calls to broaden free and compulsory education to all children ages 3-18, extending the right to education from Class 8 to Class 12. It also proposes establishing a Gender Inclusion Fund charged with the ambitious goal of ensuring “100 percent participation of girls in the schooling system”.

This aim may not be so far out of reach. India has made strides in increasing enrolment rates, particularly at the primary level. Over 95 percent of primary-aged girls were in school in 2015-2016, up from 81 percent a decade prior.

The challenge lies with secondary school. This is where enrolment rates drop off and where many of the most impactful benefits of girls’ education are realised–higher earning potential, delayed marriage, better health, and increased agency.

Together with KC Mahindra Education TrustNaandi Foundation conducted India’s first nationally representative survey of teenage girls in 2016-17. Our team undertook the Teen Age Girls (TAG) Surveyafter recognising two things: first, India needed stronger evidence-based programmes and policy for adolescent girls. Second, there was no existing national data on the specific concerns of this group. India’s 80 million teenage girls will determine the country’s future, and it is urgent that we help them thrive by addressing their unique challenges. To do this, we first needed to understand them.

Our TAG surveyors spoke to a representative sample of over 74,000 girls from every state of the country. We asked them about their realities and aspirations, in the process forming a detailed picture of their experiences with education.

The survey gave us the heartening news that 80 percent of teenage girls were studying. It also drew our attention to the barriers faced by those who are not. We hope that knowing who these girls are, where they live, and why they have left education can give practitioners a springboard to implement the right solutions in the right places.

Who were the girls that left education early?

I focus here on girls who either never went to school or dropped out before reaching Class 12. Understanding and supporting this group is crucial to closing the secondary school enrolment gap. In order to appropriately estimate the pre-Class 12 dropout rate, this analysis includes only 18-19 year old girls. Many younger teenage girls were still studying in Class 11 or below.1

The percentage of teenage girls that were studying decreased steadily as girls got older. By the time they were 18-19 years old, more than a quarter of girls had either never gone to school (4.4 percent) or had left education before Class 12 (22.2 percent). Those who did not reach Class 12 were disproportionately from lower wealth quintiles and rural areas. 16 percent were from Scheduled Tribes, compared to only 9 percent of their more educated counterparts.

Chart: Girls not reaching class 12 (as a percentage of wealth quintile)

Source: TAG Survey 2016-2017 | Percentage of the 18-19 year old girls in each wealth quintile that either never went to school or left education before reaching Class 12

The scale of the issue varied greatly by region. The rates were most alarming in India’s North-Central heart. Half of girls in Madhya Pradesh and Odisha did not reach Class 12.

Source: TAG Survey 2016-2017 | State-wise percentage of 18-19 year old girls that never attended school or left studies before reaching Class 12.

In addition, girls who did not reach Class 12 came from families with lower education levels. 35 percent of these girls had fathers who did not attend school at all. In comparison, only 15.6 percent of girls who studied further had fathers who did not attend school.

The discrepancy in mothers’ education levels was even greater, in line with evidence linking mothers’ and children’s educational attainment.

teenage girls education pie chart

Source: TAG Survey 2016-2017 | Levels of education attained by mothers of girls who don’t reach class 12, and of those who do.

What keeps girls from reaching Class 12?

Financial problems (38 percent)

The most common reason girls cited for not attending school was parents’ financial problems. This might imply that parents could not afford school expenses such as textbooks or commute fares, or that they needed financial support from their daughters. 45 percent of girls who did not reach Class 12 because of their parents’ financial problems reported having worked for pay, compared to 28 percent of 18-19 year olds who did reach Class 12.

Social norms (24 percent)

One in four girls out of school before Class 12 attributed their dropping out to gender-based standards for girls, including attending to housework or sibling care or following community norms for girls’ education. 61 percent of these girls agreed that boys in their communities had more opportunities for education, and only 10 percent believed that men or boys in their communities could do as much housework as women or girls.

Health and family challenges (20 percent)

One in five girls who did not reach Class 12 referenced illness or disability (her own or a family member’s), migration, absence of parents, or an emergency situation.

Access to school (15 percent)

These girls said the lack of an appropriate school nearby kept them from studying. 90 percent of girls that gave this reason lived in rural areas. Indeed, a girl’s likelihood of having a neighbourhood school decreases quickly as she gets older: there are more than 14 times as many schools in India for students in classes 1-5 students as there are for students in classes 11-12.
Done with studies (11 percent)

6 percent of girls who left school early did so because they were uninterested in further studies. 5 percent left because they failed an exam or struggled in school.

Marriage (4 percent)

15 percent of 18-19 year olds who left school before Class 12 were married, compared to 8 percent of their peers with more education. However, only 4 percent of girls who have discontinued education early cited engagement or marriage as a reason.

Teenage girls in school uniform in India

The most common reason girls cited for not attending school was parents’ financial problems | Picture courtesy: Naandi Foundation

The path to 100 percent ‘girls in school’

Reaching full girls’ enrolment through Class 12 will require working with those who are most likely to struggle: girls from low-income, low-education families in rural areas, particularly in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha. It will also entail stronger support and accommodations for at-risk girls, including those living with health challenges or disabilities, in emergency situations, and as part of migrant families.

The majority of girls who were out of school cited reasons related to financial difficulty or gendered expectations, suggesting that scholarships, cash transfers, and social norms change interventions will continue to be useful tools to build an enabling environment for girls’ education. We can also advocate to expand the number of secondary schools in rural areas, as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme did for primary schools.

Of course, our work is not finished when all girls are in classrooms. The quality of their education and the existence of meaningful choices upon passing Class 12 are even more important. Even so, school attendance is an essential first step–and with the resources and determination, a step we can and should reach sooner rather than later.

11.5 percent of 18-19 year old girls are still studying at Class 11 or below, so the proportion that does not ultimately reach Class 12 is likely slightly higher than that given here.

This article was originally published on India Development Review.

About the author:
Rachel Wilder: Rachel Wilder works in Naandi Foundation’s Policy and Strategy Cell, where she conducts research and contributes to large-scale programmes with a focus on girls’ wellbeing. Her primary area of interest is the intersection of gender, education, and economic development. Rachel holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and international studies from the University of Central Florida.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

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Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

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Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Find out more about the campaign here.

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Read more about the campaign here.

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Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

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