Policy can bridge gender gap

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Photo: Garima Jain

The old cliché “a single death is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic” is an apt description of the nationwide reaction to crimes against women. The 2011 Census report revealed that the child sex ratio in India dropped to an all-time low of 914 girls for every 1,000 boys. Delhi recorded a dismal figure of 866. Yet, it was an incident on the night of 16 December last year in Delhi that shook the nation.

The real challenge India faces is not how to tighten its laws on crimes against women, but how to change the mindset of a society that has — for as long as we know — systematically discriminated against women. Girls, if they manage to survive the long and perilous journey from the womb to the cradle, are fed and educated less than boys. Women are far less likely to work for pay or work outside of the home. According to a UNICEF report, The State of the World’s Children 2012, by the time they turn 18, nearly half of the women are married and a quarter have given birth.

To address this issue, we first need to understand the behavioural underpinnings of our society that drives people to act the way they do. Undoubtedly, deeper social and cultural factors play an important role in sustaining women’s low status. These factors are also difficult to change in the short term. But are there other factors, more within the control of policymakers, which can reset the gender imbalance in our society?

Professor Robert Jensen, an affiliate of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, went looking for the answers to this question in the rural outskirts of Delhi. Specifically, he wanted to learn if more high-paying jobs for women have any impact on outcomes for girls and women. Jensen conducted a randomised evaluation in which he paid trained recruiters to make annual visits for three years to 80 randomly selected villages (treatment villages) around Delhi.

The recruiters were tasked with spreading awareness about jobs for educated young women in the BPO industry and, subsequently, helping qualified women get BPO jobs by offering free recruitment services. A similar sized group of villages (comparison villages) was selected randomly from the same region, but where no recruiters visited.

In a paper published last year in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Jensen reports his findings. He finds that greater employment opportunities for women led to dramatic gains in outcomes for girls and women. Young qualified women in the treatment villages were more likely to be employed in the BPO sector by 5 percentage points. School enrolment of girls in these villages increased significantly, and closed about 60 percent of the boy-girl gap in enrolment. The intervention also resulted in an increase of body mass index (BMI) for school-aged girls, reflecting better nutrition and/or health investments.

The effects of the intervention didn’t end there. Young women in the treatment villages expressed significantly greater desire (by around 12 percentage points) to work for pay outside the home throughout their lives, both before marriage, and after marriage and childbirth. They were also less likely to get married or to have given birth over the three year period of the intervention than women in the comparison villages.

The message for policymakers is clear. While deeper social and cultural factors may be responsible for women’s low status, some parents are not investing in their daughters because they do not see an economic value in doing so. More job opportunities for women in future will lead parents to keep their girls in school longer and make greater investments in their nutrition and health. This could be done by raising awareness about existing job opportunities for women (as was done in this study) and by incentivising the creation of more jobs for women.

The study also illustrates that it is possible to design new, innovative policies specifically targeting gender discrimination and test them rigorously in real-world settings to learn if they are effective or not. Ultimately, if all that we are fighting is ignorance and prejudice accumulated over centuries, it’s only reasonable that we fight this battle with the help of science and good data.

Shah is Policy Manager, Abdul Latif Jameel Policy Action Lab

(The views expressed here are personal)

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