New Delhi: Haryana brings to mind a litany of gender stereotypes in an inherently patriarchal set-up—female infanticide, women in ghoonghat, and a world where men have a free hand to do just about everything that they want to.

To change the narrative for a better society, researchers from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Indian School of Business and Northwestern University came together in 2014 to see if gender sensitivity and appreciation of the unique challenges faced by women can be taught as a school subject.

Through awareness and persuasion programmes across 314 government schools in Haryana, the reseachers attempted to see if the attitude of the youths towards gender equality and later-life choices can be nudged and changed.

The initiative centred around classroom discussions on gender equality, and 45-minute sessions every three weeks for two-and-a-half school years were organised between 2014 and 2017.

“The sessions taught facts and endorsed gender equality, besides prompting students to reflect on their own views and that of their society’s. Discussion topics included gender roles at homes, girls’ education, women’s employment outside the home, and harassment. Some sessions taught communication skills to help students convince others of their views to, say, persuade their parents to permit them to marry at a later age," wrote the authors of the paper, Diva Dhar, Tarun Jain and Seema Jayachandran.

Nearly 14,000 children from the targeted group have been randomly selected for follow-up surveys every five years to see if there were any changes in their attitudes, behaviour and aspiration.

The preliminary results of these programmes suggest that it did have a positive impact on the lives of the participants, at least, in the short term. However, the study also found that the girls may face gender-specific barriers to act on their altered attitudes. “The intervention also produced more gender-equal behaviour such as increased interaction at school with the opposite sex," the researchers wrote.

In India, while boys and girls start secondary school at the same rate, only 0.73 girls enrol in tertiary schooling for every boy. Early weddings and childbearing are common, and women face lifelong barriers to access healthcare, mobility and autonomy, and labour force participation. Selective abortion of female foetuses is also widespread. India’s sex ratio among children aged 0 to 6 years is 1.09 boys per girls. In Haryana, the sex ratio was at 1.20, making it the most male-skewed state.

To ensure gender equality, change in the mindset of the society was always flagged as an important aspect. Current approaches to reduce gender bias, such as banning sex-selective abortion and offering financial incentives to have daughters, do not appear to be working, the researchers wrote in the paper: ‘Reshaping Adolescents’ Gender Attitudes: Evidence from a School-Based Experiment in India’.

In order to find other workable strategies that can make a dent, secondary school students, who were at a critical time in the development of morality and formation of identity, a time when people are young enough to still have malleable attitudes, but mature enough to reflect on complex moral questions, were targeted.