Women’s empowerment and changing social norms: Persistent effects of a one-time targeted in-kind transfer in India

  • An evaluation of the long-term impact of the Government of Bihar’s bicycle programme, started in 2006, where every girl enrolled in grade 9 receives money to buy a bicycle.

  • A girl with a cycle is more likely to complete school (22.9%) or college (5%) compared to a girl who did not get a cycle. Cycle girls are also 4% less likely to be working in agriculture, the dominant job sector for women who work in Bihar.

  • Cycle girls are less likely to be married early and more likely to delay child birth than those without cycles.

  • The programme seems to change both the girls’ own aspirations and those of their families. The attitudes towards girls in the treated villages seem to have changed as an indirect effect of the intervention.

  • While the cycles have clearly empowered girls, they lack further means and opportunities to become even more independent (i.e., non-agriculture jobs are not easily available to them).

Several existing studies have documented that women are severely under-represented in all socio-economic spheres in India. Efforts have been made to increase women’s participation in various domains. A fairly recent sub-national endeavour, which is the focus of the current study, is the cycle programme initiated by the Bihar government; this is aimed at encouraging girls to continue attending high school by providing them with bicycles.

There are many reasons as to why girls are not able to attend school. First, there are restrictions imposed on the movement of women and the access they have to the outside world; often “cultural considerations” are invoked in justifying such restrictions. Another important factor is the actual access to a secondary school. In a developing country like India, high schools are fewer and a larger distance away in comparison to those in an average developed country. This coupled with the fact that it is not often safe for women to travel unaccompanied for long distances deters otherwise willing parents from sending their daughters to school.

Social norms take time to change and it is difficult to directly influence the first of the reasons. However, the second factor can be effectively tackled by concerted policy. The direct way to improve school enrollment would be to set up more schools so that girls do not have to go very far from home. This coupled with efforts to improve the rule of law would encourage reluctant parents to send their daughters to school. There are several infrastructural hurdles, however, to such schemes. Therefore an initiative like the cycle programme removes some of the bottlenecks for girls’ enrollment in secondary school quickly without requiring any additional investment in infrastructure.

This project aimed to investigate how empowerment of girls through this programme may improve earnings and living conditions via the influence on aspirations as they filter into the society at the local level. We wanted to investigate under what conditions better opportunities may lead to more gender equality.  What are the long-term effects of conditional reforms to stimulate higher participation in educational programmes? Can such reforms help the local community to escape aspiration induced poverty traps with a clear gender bias?

Given the success of the cycle programme to increase enrollment to secondary school, we followed up on the initial beneficiaries to assess the long-term impacts of the scheme. This provided a fuller assessment of the benefits of the scheme and would be useful if the scheme was to be implemented in other states in India or in other developing countries.

Specifically, we studied the following long term impacts of a one-time in-kind transfer on women’s empowerment:

  • Were the targeted girls more likely to proceed to college and later on to work?
  • Did aspirations of parents for their daughters change? Was the dowry lower or higher for more educated girls if they were matched with more educated boys?
  • As social norms (slowly) change when girls step out of the house to study or to work, do they encounter less harassment and violence?

We collected data from the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand.