Mamata Banerjee’s Schemes For Adolescent Girls Bear Fruit But Challenges Remain

“I am determined to go for higher studies. Once I get my Kanyashree money, I will use it to go to college,” says Jahira Khatun. Khatun (17), is a class 10 student and a beneficiary of Kanyashree Prakalpa, a scholarship program for school-going girls launched by the government of West Bengal. Launched by the chief minister Mamata Banerjee as a conditional cash transfer (CCT) scheme for families with an annual income of ₹1.2 lakh in 2013, it’s objective was to address twin challenges- high child marriages and school dropout among adolescent girls in socially and economically weaker sections. Beneficiaries between the ages of 13 to 18 years of the scheme are entitled to a yearly scholarship amount of Rs. 1,000. They also get  a one-time grant of Rs. 25,000 on remaining unmarried till 18 years. In 2018, it was made an universal program

Khatun lives with her family in Saiyadpur village in Salboni block of West Medinipur district. The district along with Bankura, Puruliya, and Birbhum was once part of the Maoist-dominated red corridor but has been peaceful since 2011.The district has the highest population of Scheduled Tribes (ST) in West Bengal according to the District Census Handbook

Khatun, who has escaped the years of Naxal insurgency, is preparing for her board exams which will be held in June. She has also received a bicycle under the Sabooj Sathi scheme- a state government scheme which gives free bicycles to students of classes 9 to 12. The cycle has helped her access private tuition lessons 2 kms away from her home,especially during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Schemes such as Kanyashree and Sabooj Sathi have helped adolescent  girls like Khatun in the state escape child marriage. With 22 million child brides, West Bengal(along with Bihar) ranks second highest in child marriage after Uttar Pradesh according to  data compiled by UNICEF in 2019.

The government of West Bengal has allocated an annual budget of Rs 750 crore and added an additional ₹200 crore when it was made a universal scheme. More than 70 lakh girls have benefitted from the scheme, which has won the United Nations Public Service Award in 2017. More than 82 lakh students have received bicycles under Sabooj Sathi scheme since 2015.

The state of West Bengal has seen a long drawn 8 phase election between 27 March and 29 April 2021 to elect a new government. Women voters now constitute 49 percent of the state’s total electorate. Mamata Banerjee and her party are depending on the women-centric welfare schemes instituted during her tenure to ride them to victory.

As West Bengal votes in the final phase of election tomorrow, we look at how the two schemes for adolescent girls- Kanyashree and Sabooj Sathi have performed in the state.

Empower Young Girls

The Kanyashree scheme has encouraged the increase in  enrolment of girls between the age of 13 and 18 years by 10 percentage points between 2014 and 2016 according to an evaluation study by the  Pratichi Institute. The improvement in the rural areas is higher than that in the urban areas.

“Both DISE [Unified District Information System for Education]  and NSSO [National Sample Survey Office] data show that the enrollment of girls has outnumbered that of boys in the last ten years,” says Sabir Ahamed, National Research Coordinator of  Pratichi Institute.

 8,29,181 girls are enrolled in classes 11 and 12 compared to 7,87,105 boys, according to the latest DISE data. A decade ago, there were only 549597 girls against 682361 boys in the same classes.

The improvement in Gross Enrolment Ratio at secondary level  is particularly visible in districts like Malda, Uttar Dinajpur and Jalpaiguri which are otherwise known for poorer educational achievements, especially for women. The scheme might have encouraged girls who may have once dropped out from education to enrol again, observes the study.

Apart from gains in enrolment, the scheme has had a spin off effect in increasing banking services among girls in the state. 85.2 percent of girls aged 13 to 18 years now have a bank account compared to 57.4 per cent boys in the same age group – a significant achievement in a state where girls were largely underserved by  banking services. 

The Sabooj Sathi scheme that gives free bicycles has also contributed to the increase in enrollment of girls especially in a state like West Bengal where only 23% of the villages have access to secondary school and 16% to higher secondary school facilities. Girls in 29% of villages have to travel more than 5 Kms to attend higher secondary school according to an evaluation of the scheme by Pratichi Institute in 2017.

The scheme has improved safety for girls cycling to school in groups and has dealt a blow to patriarchal norms that limit female mobility. 

“I used to walk to school and tuition. The local boys used to tease me. Since I started cycling everywhere, it takes less time for the commute and I no longer have to listen to those boys,” Khatun told BehanBox.

Similar schemes in other states like Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh have both increased enrolment as well as educational and career aspirations among adolescent girls. In Bihar, the Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana launched in 2006 was found to have raised the aspirations among the girls and changed attitudes towards women.

Lack of agency among girls

In spite of the gains, the young girls lack the agency in deciding how the money they receive  is spent.

Shilpa, the older sister of Jahira used the one time grant of Rs 25000 from the Kanyashree scheme to enroll in a college and buy books. She found it difficult to continue her studies once her grant dried up.

“We are poor. She needed books, admission fees and bus fare. Since my parents could not afford her education anymore, they got her married”, said Jahira.

Since girls receive the Rs 25,000 grant at 18, the legal age for marriage, most parents use the money to pay for the wedding expenses of their daughters instead of investing in college education, we found. Most invest the Kanyashree money in buying gold.

The West Bengal government runs a separate scheme, the Rupashree Prakalpa, that gives a one-time grant of Rs 25,000 to help in the wedding expenses of girls from poor families.

The Kanyashree scheme has also seen lesser uptake among the Adivasi girls in the state with 12.3% girls not availing of the grant. Overwhelming poverty among most Adivasi families and the promise of security of marriage compels girls to be pushed into marriage than higher education.

Mala Nayak, a student of Class 9 belongs to the Lodha community, once classified as a ‘criminal tribe’ and receives benefits under the Kanyashree, Sabooj Sathi and Sikshashree schemes. However, she is not very keen to continue her studies. 

Dropout rates among girls aged 13-21 from Other backward Castes (OBC) and Scheduled Castes (SC) was high. In districts of Malda, Nadia and Purba Medinipur, close to half the girls from Scheduled Castes (SC) dropped out of high school.

Tumpa Doloi, a student of class 10 from the Dom (SC) community wants to study further but circumstances are not easy for her. Her father, the sole earning member of the family, is a daily wage worker. When he manages to find work, he earns Rs 300 a day. The nearest secondary school is 2km away. Schemes like Kanyashree, Sabooj Sathi and Sikshashree, an annual grant of Rs 800 given to SC and ST students would have allowed her higher education. But her mother Anima says they cannot have an unmarried 18-year-old daughter at home. 

“If we sense any trouble, we will marry her off immediately. After all, we don’t want her to run away [with a boy],” says Anima. 

Recent data from the National Family Health Survey shows that an increase in enrolment of girls has had no impact in decreasing child marriage in West Bengal. The percentage of women aged 20-24 married off before the age of 18 remains high at 41.6 percent, same as the previous round of NFHS-4 (2015-2016). 

The Pratichi assessment reveals that school enrolment starts to decline abruptly among girls  aged 17 years and above after secondary school, suggesting that while the scheme did make gains in secondary education, it has not managed to drive them towards college education. 

“A government policy should be assessed based on its sustainability and not just on its immediate outcome”, says Debdatta Chowdhury, assistant professor in gender studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata. “They [women-centric policies] are more populist in nature and might not have the desired outcome,” she says. 

 “A very common occurrence is once they get hold of the money, they abandon education, get married or use the money for something else,” she adds.

For many, the regular annual amount of Rs 1000, which translates to Rs 83 a month, is grossly inadequate, especially during the Covid pandemic.

“With the schools closed [due to the pandemic], we need to hire a private tutor who charges Rs 300 per month. How will we pay his fees for the remaining nine months?” said Rahi Bibi, mother of Jahira Khatun.

Labor force participation 

Since the Kanyashree scheme was launched in 2013, a good cohort would have been ready to enter the job market. So, what happened? 

“ This is where the scheme somehow didn’t translate into what it was envisioned to be,” says Chowdhury. “That gap between people availing these policies and the real job market scene is where the productive outcome or the lack thereof, might be located,” she adds.

Women’s labor force participation rate is one of the lowest among states in West Bengal with 17.5% as compared to the national rate of 35% according to the latest data from periodic labour force survey. Fewer women (16.2%) in rural areas have paid employment than urban ones (20%).

Lack of job opportunities plagues the state.  According to a study by NITI Aayog, the state’s economy has witnessed a decline in the industrial and manufacturing activity in the organized sector for fifty years. 

“Few profit-making industries like construction and other heavy-scale industries are not gender-inclusive,” says Chowdhury. 

“They are unfavorable to women’s participation because they undermine women’s physical ability for labor-intensive jobs. They often demand odd or long job hours which many women are unable to commit to,” she adds.

 In the 2021 assembly election manifesto, TMC promised a universal basic income (UBI) of Rs 500 to a general category and Rs 1,000 every month for SC/ST/OBC women guardians of families.

“Universal Basic Income will be a boost in the post-COVID context where there is a lack of cash,” says political scientist Maidul Islam.

Any distribution of wealth is welcome, says Ahamed, but adds that this is not a solution to the problem of high levels of unemployment among women. “It will not build their agency and help them make independent decisions about their life.”

In Salboni, though the state has given educational incentives like Kanyashree and Sabooj Sathi, Jahira still struggles with her studies. With the schools being closed, all study materials are sent online which she accesses through her brother’s smartphone. The problem is her brother is seldom at home. It is her sister-in-law who encourages her to study further.

  • Puja Bhattacharjee is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kolkata. She reports on policy, social justice, LGBTQIA+ issues, art and culture

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