Factors leading to Adolescent Girls dropping out of school in India

In a previous post, we explored the relationship between poverty and drop-outs in India. However, girl students face a unique set of challenges, which require unique solutions and interventions.

As adolescent girls’ lives improve, so does the well-being of their families and communities. 

The Challenges

Adolescent Girls in India are especially disadvantaged given their low enrolment rate and educational attainment levels. They are among the most economically vulnerable groups who typically lack access to financial capital and have more limited opportunities to gain the education, knowledge, and skills that can lead to economic advancement. 

Adolescent girls often lack social support, and community social norms can create barriers to their economic advancement. Economic empowerment can be a critical lever for change in adolescent girls’ lives, helping them to gain financial independence, establish good saving habits, and improve their future prospects for participation in the labor force. It can also provide girls with more mobility, promote their confidence, strengthen their social networks, and improve their health outcomes. 

According to the ministry of human resource development (MHRD), 62.1 million children are out of school in India. The 2011 Census estimated the figure at 84 million—nearly 20% of the age group covered under the Right to Education (RTE) Act. At this stage, traditional gender norms push girls into helping with household chores and sibling care, leading to irregular attendance that eventually results in dropouts. Early marriage, lack of safety in schools and low aspirations related to girls’ education also lead to them dropping out.

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) was set up in March 2007. In the most recent report by the NCPR, it was found that 39.4% of girls aged 15 to 18 years drop out of school and college across the country. Of the girls who drop out, 64.8% do so not because they are working jobs, but because they are forced to take on household chores. Perhaps more worryingly, many girls drop out to engage in begging.

Additional problems arise when the girl reaches secondary education. As the recent Annual Survey of Education Report (Aser) 2018 findings suggest, while on average the difference between enrollment levels of boys and girls at age 14 is declining.By 18, when the state doesn’t enforce compulsory education through the RTE Act, 32% girls are not enrolled—compared to 28% boys. Bridging mechanisms for out-of-school children exist at the elementary stage, but are absent for secondary education. Hence girls find it difficult to re-enter education once they have dropped out. The number of schools also decreases sharply beyond upper primary. In 2015-16, for every 100 elementary schools (classes I to VIII) in rural India, there were 14 offering secondary (classes IX-X) and only six offering higher secondary grades (classes XI-XII). This stacks the odds against girls’ education and leads to dropouts.

ASER suggests that the predominant reason for girls dropping out is family constraints (32.5% at secondary level). Mechanisms for dialogue with parents and community are critical to change social norms towards girls’ education. The presence of strong female role models in the community, such as women teachers, are key to changing peoples’ perceptions in terms of what girls can do. This is critical for the education of not only this generation, but also the next. Aser 2017 finds that 70.7% rural out-of-school youth have mothers who have never been to school.

Data source: https://www.mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/statistics/ESG2016_0.pdf

For purpose of census, a person aged seven and above, who can both write and read in any of the language is considered as a literate in India. As male literacy rates in India continue to climb, rates for women do too. However, only an estimated two-thirds of Indian women will be able to read and write in any language in 2021.

The Solutions

While the problems are severe, they are not insurmountable. Plenty of experience exists on how to keep girls in school and ensure quality education. 

Following the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005 guidelines, Indian States have taken a decision to establish gender as a critical marker of transformation through increasing visual representation of girls and women, challenging gender stereotypes. Most of the states have incorporated Gender Sensitizing in their regular School Management Committee training modules to deal with issues such as enrollment, retention, and completion of girl students’ educations. This pushes schools to create suitable atmospheres for girl students, and, improve rapport between staff and pupils for discussing gender awareness. 

The UNICEF  Menstrual Hygiene Management Programme has pushed for girl students to be more aware about the use of clean sanitary pads and the method of safe disposal. The misconceptions regarding menstrual health and the taboos associated with it are slowly diminishing. Under this initiative, Paheli Ki Saheli, an age appropriate book with puzzles was distributed among schools in India to educate adolescent girls and break the silence around menstruation. Kerala is the first state to provide free sanitary napkins in schools and other states should follow suit given the robust evidence of adolescent girls’ absence during their periods.

Distance is a big contributing factor to girls dropping out. Initiatives like distribution of bicycles to girls and the hiring of chaperones (Tola Sevaks in Bihar) make schooling safer and enhances retention of girls. Schemes like the former have been shown to increase girls’ age-appropriate enrollment in secondary schools by 30%. 

The Interventions

Identifying and intervening before a student drops out is the best way to ensure girl students complete their education, on a case-by-case basis. It is critical to have a mechanism to identify girls at risk of dropping out and implement mechanisms to bring those that have dropped out back into school. The new definition of a dropout, 30 days of continuous unexcused absence, is a start, but would be inadequate (SOURCE); more regular touch points are needed to create timely corrective measures to ensure timely regular attendance.

 Successful interventions for girl students often include two approaches—an Early Warning System and in-school Recreation/Enrichment Activities should be developed and implemented by schools and state governments. 

Early Warning System (to reduce student absenteeism and support at-risk students in school)

  • Use existing school level data on attendance, performance, behavior etc. to identify students at-risk of dropping out of school,
  • Enhance the capacity of schools to address the needs of at-risk students, and
  • Strengthen the partnership between school personnel and the parents/guardians of at-risk students.

Recreation/Enrichment Activities (to increase attractiveness of education to students and motivate attendance)

  • Promote lifeskill activities in class to encourage students to participate in creative, entertaining activities (arts and craft, sports and games, reading and storytelling) that develop learning skills and challenge conventional gender roles in India, and
  • Engage teachers and community volunteers to lead and facilitate the recreation and enrichment activities.

Fundamentally, schools need to become more receptive for girls and deliver education of better quality. It is particularly important to ensure that all teachers are trained and sensitized to gender concerns. Availability of a gender-sensitive print-rich environment in schools is important. However, the curriculum itself needs to enable girls to challenge gender stereotypes and become more assertive.

Stronger efforts are needed to enhance the agency of girls themselves to strengthen their self-esteem, challenge gender bias and provide leadership. While it is important to work with and empower girls, it is also critical to engage with boys to create a better, more gender equal tomorrow.

Beti Padho, beti bachao.  The enormity of this problem is well understood by the Honorable Prime Minister Modi. In line with the clarion call, JS Trust is proud to have sponsored dozens of adolescent girls’ educations in India. To take the first step to making a difference, read more about our education initiative, Shiksha Sahayak, or contact us to collaborate.

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