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Are economic incentives enough to prevent child marriage? Findings from Haryana, India

November 2011, Bihar, India: Arpna, aged 17, at home in Kharrati village in Gaya District. | Photo credit: Graham Crouch | The Elders

On International Day for the Eradication of World Poverty (17 October), we look at whether economic incentives are enough to alleviate the poverty which is often the reason that parents marry off their daughters.

22 years ago, the Indian state of Haryana launched Apni Beti Apna Dhan (“Our daughters, our wealth”), an ambitious cash-transfer (CCT) programme to change how girls were seen by their families and communities – as a burden to be married off, not an asset.

For every daughter that was born, a family that enrolled in the programme would receive approximately $400, on the condition that they remained unmarried until the age of 18. The impact, they hoped, would be three-fold: increased value of girls, improved educational attainment, and delayed marriage.

When the girls in the programme turned 18, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a Girls Not Brides member, saw the perfect opportunity to evaluate its impact. Was the programme successful? Were girls now seen as more valuable? Were they able to delay marriage? Here is what they found.

Did Apni Beti Apna Dhan help prevent child marriage?

In a nutshell, not really. Although the programme gave families an incentive to keep their daughters in school until the 8th grade, ICRW found that it had no effect on girls getting married before 18.

Only a small proportion of girls (14%) were married when the programme was evaluated. Most telling, there was no significant difference between girls who took part in Apni Beti Apna Dhan and those who didn’t. The programme accompanied a shift that was already happening in the state of Haryana – girls staying in school longer and delaying marriage – but did not cause the change.

On the contrary, the programme may have encouraged families to marry off their daughters once they turned 18. Girls whose families benefited from the conditional cash transfers were 59% more likely to be married once they turned 18 than girls who hadn’t participated. In fact, many families waited to cash in the money at the end of the programme as they saw it a way to cover their daughter’s marriage and dowry expenses.

Challenging social norms

Apni Beti Apna Dhan’s failure to influence when a girl gets marriage points to a bigger problem: changing social norms and attitudes towards girls. Child marriage in Haryana is deeply rooted in gender roles and expectations around girls’ role, which the conditional cash transfers did not challenge.

Girls who took part in the programme grew up with the understanding that they had to get married by a certain age. They understood that their aspirations remained limited by the decisions made for them by their parents and, later on, their husband.

“If we don’t marry her off people will say we’ve kept her to help do the household chores. […] This is the way of the world. Everyone gets their daughters married and we’ll have to do it too,” explained one mother.

This tells us that financial incentives alone cannot erase centuries of discrimination towards girls. Social change is complex and requires long-term, multi-sectoral approaches. To transform social norms, programmes must go hand in hand with other interventions to change parents’ attitudes, improve education, incentivise higher level of education, and increase opportunities for girls to learn, work and earn.

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