Home / Politics / Policy /  Indian girls’ aspirations brush up against reality

India’s teenage girls, numbering about 80 million, are brimming with hope, but there is a wide gulf between their dreams and reality, a new survey of 74,000 teenage girls in 30 states shows.

The survey, designed and commissioned by the non-profit Naandi Foundation, which works for the empowerment of young girls, shows some of the hopes of teenage girls about their education, career, marriage and child-bearing.

One of the major successes that India has had in the past decade has been the decline of child marriage. The median age at marriage for women is now 19 years, according to the National Family Health Survey, up from 17 years a decade ago. The share of young women (aged 20-24) who were married before they were 18 is 27%, compared with 46% of older women (now aged 45-49) who were married before they were 18. In the Naandi Foundation survey, over 95% of teenage girls surveyed were unmarried.

But there is still a big gulf between when teenage girls want to get married and when women are currently getting married. A quarter of the surveyed girls said they would like to get married between 18 and 20, while another half said that they would like to get married by the age of 21-25. Urban girls and more affluent girls wanted to get married later. But in reality, over 60% of women in India—even young women currently in their early twenties—are already married by age 20. Rural women and poorer women get married earlier.

With marriage slightly delayed than before, however, education and work are on the minds of teenage Indian girls. Over 90% of 13-year-old girls are currently in school, but as teenage girls move up from secondary to higher secondary education, they begin to drop out. By age 19, just 66% remain in the education system. Girls in rural areas and those from poor families are more likely to drop out.

As many as 70% of teenage girls said they would like to pursue higher education, and a quarter wanted to complete a post-graduation degree. As of 2011-12, however, only 3% of young women (aged 20-30 years) were postgraduates. The majority—six of every 10 young women—had less than a matriculation/secondary school education. Just 1% of the teenage girls surveyed by the Naandi Foundation said they would be satisfied with anything less than a matriculation, pointing toward a simmering desire for more education than they are currently able to access.

Nearly 75% of the surveyed teenage girls said they wanted to work after they finished their studies. However, just half of women aged 20-49 were either working or looking for work, according to the 2011 Census, with domestic chores, including child-rearing, taking up their time.

Moreover, the disconnect between what work teenage girls aspire to and what work women find themselves doing is immense. The top jobs in the minds of teenage girls were skilled professional jobs— teachers, tailors, doctors, policewomen and nurses. These are aspirations that have come to the fore in other surveys, too. The latest Annual Status of Education Report found that a quarter of young girls wanted to become teachers, followed by doctors/nurses, while just 1% of rural youth wanted to work in agriculture.

However, data from the National Sample Survey Office shows that while skilled agricultural work and agricultural labour are the most common occupations for rural women, artisanal work and domestic work are the most common occupations for urban women.

Young women today are better educated than ever before and able to delay marriage longer than the generations before, but their dreams are likely to collide with an economy that isn’t able to provide the salaried jobs they so desire.

Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist.

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