I am pleased to inform the House that Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (BBBP) has yielded tremendous results. Gross enrolment ratio (GER) of girls across all levels of education is now higher than boys," said Nirmala Sitharaman in her budget speech.
In her speech, this was one of the livelier moments as the finance minister’s claims were met by loud cheers in Parliament. Were the cheers warranted? Data suggests that the BBBP scheme may still be a long way from addressing India’s bias against girl children. The scheme, launched in 2015, is a large scale awareness programme that aims to reduce the preference for male children and empower girls through education. The scheme conducts activities at the district-level such as communication campaigns via radio in regional languages, SMS and social media messaging, and regular monitoring of gender outcomes.
One measure of BBBP’s success is enrolment rates at schools. BBBP’s manual in 2017, for example, had set a target of improving girl’s enrolment in secondary education to 79% from 76% in 2014. And in the finance minister’s speech, she suggested that girl enrolment in elementary schools is now higher than boys because of BBBP. Data supports this claim but it is less clear what role BBBP played in the change in enrolment. According to government data, collected through District Information System for Education (DISE), the human resources ministry’s statistical system for school data, girl enrolment rates were higher than boys even before the scheme was launched. In 2014-15, DISE data shows that the gross enrolment ratio of girls in secondary schools was 77.5% compared to 76.4% of boys. Gross enrolment ratio is the overall student enrolment in a class as a proportion of the corresponding eligible age group and is the standard measure of enrolment. In 2017-18, gross enrolment ratio for girls in secondary schools had increased to 80% while boys had increased to 76%.
External data, though, paints a different picture.The latest edition of Annual Status of the Education Report (ASER), compiled by the education NGO Pratham, finds that a greater proportion of girl children are out of school compared to boys. However, over time, this gap is decreasing.
Enrolment, however, is only the first step of education. Successful education depends not just on enrolling in school but attending classes and learning before graduating. Data shows that both boys and girls struggle on both these fronts. For instance, the latest data from ASER shows that a large proportion of school-going boys and girls still struggle to read or perform basic arithmetic calculations, pointing to deeper issues in India’s education system.
Similarly, DISE data shows that across different levels of schooling, irrespective of gender, a significant proportion of students drop out. And this drop out ratio has only worsened in recent years.
More than education, the scale of BBBP’s challenge is revealed in sex ratio data. The latest data from the 2017 Sample Registration System survey found that India’s sex ratio at birth is worsening. In 2015-17, there were 896 females born for every 1,000 males, a 10-year low. The problem cuts across geography with the sex ratio in urban India (890 females) even lower than the ratio in rural India (898 females).
The big reason for this skewed ratio is India’s strong preference for male children. The 2017-18 Economic Survey suggests that male preference means that families have children until they have a son and, consequently, there are 21 million ‘unwanted’ girls in India. The issue could be further exacerbated by falling fertility rates which are associated with worsening sex ratios.
BBBP directly seeks to address this preference for male children but, on its own, it may not be enough. A 2015 study examining the roots of gender inequality highlights several different causes of which require different policy interventions. In terms of mandate, BBBP is restricted to purely awareness but addressing gender inequality requires a multi-pronged approach. Further, the scheme could be constrained by resources. In the 2020 budget, ₹220 crore was set aside to the scheme but this works out to ₹34 lakh per district. And going by past data, much of this money may not be spent: actual spending on BBBP has always been lower than budget estimates.
The vision of saving girls and educating them better requires more than just one scheme. BBBP could help address prejudices, but it cannot work in isolation. Neither can it help improve education without much-needed education sector reform.