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Sudents of Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls study in class and after hours in their classroom. (Candace Feit/Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail)
Sudents of Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls study in class and after hours in their classroom. (Candace Feit/Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail)

In India, good things happen when women are in charge Add to ...

Read more about the extraordinary schools that give India's Dalit girls a chance at a better life by clicking here.

When India made it law in 1993 that a third of all seats on local government councils had to be held by women, the vision was that those female-headed councils would spend more government funds on public goods such as schools and wells. As a byproduct, women’s status might improve.

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As The Globe reported last year it took much longer than expected, but women, especially those from the Dalit or “untouchable” community, were able slowly to use the affirmative action quotas to attain power that would once have been unthinkable.

Now intriguing new research has found that the quotas did something else as well: they dramatically changed the beliefs of young girls – and their parents – about what they could and should do with their lives.

The research, published recently in the journal Science, used more than 8,000 interviews with young people ages 11 to 15, and their parents, in 495 villages in the state West Bengal, to track changes in their ideas about when girls should marry, what jobs they could hold, how long they should stay in school, and how much domestic work they should do.

It found that teenage girls – and boys – in villages run by women come to believe that girls should stay in school longer, marry later, get jobs (that they choose themselves) and spend less time on domestic work – and the change was driven by the “role model effect,” of seeing a woman exercise power.

The study took advantage of the fact that districts in West Bengal were randomly assigned a women’s-quota seat – so some villages have never had a female head, some have had one, and some have had two, in elections in 1998 and 2003. Because there were no other significant policy changes affecting those villages over the period – that is, nothing else changed except having a female leader – the researchers have a rare opportunity to study the impact of the women’s quota.

At the outset, Indian parents have higher aspirations for boys than for girls. But in villages that have had a female pradhan, or chief councilor, parents are 55 per cent more likely to state that they would like their daughter to graduate or study beyond the secondary school level. That improvement doesn’t come at a cost of parents’ dream for their sons – aspirations for boys remained unchanged – and so, as Northwestern University professor Lori Beaman and her colleagues write, “the entire decline in the gap is accounted for by improvements for girls.”

The proportion of parents who believe that a daughter’s, but not a son’s, occupation should be determined by her in-laws declines from 76 per cent to 65 per cent in villages that have had a female leader once.

In villages headed by women, girls were significantly more likely to say they did not want to be a housewife or have their occupation determined by their in-laws; to want to marry after the age of 18; and to want a job that requires an education.

The research found the greatest changes in the villages that have now twice had a female leader.

And, Prof. Beaman noted, the change was not just in aspirations, but also in actual outcomes: While boys in villages that had never had a female chief councilor were six per cent more likely to be in school, and four per cent more likely to be able to read and write, than girls, the gap disappeared completely once there was a female leader. While girls in villages that had never been led by a woman spent 79 minutes more a day than boys on domestic chores (such as collecting water, cooking, cleaning, providing childcare and collecting fuel) that fell to 61 minutes more once a woman had been in charge of the village at least once.

Girls raised in villages with a female pradhan were more likely to score higher in school exams than girls from other villages, while test scores for boys remained roughly the same.

The data shows this is not, Prof. Beaman writes, simply because women introduced policies that were good for women or girls, such as better schools; rather “it is their presence as positive role models for the younger generation that seems to underlie observed changes in aspirations and educational outcomes of adolescent girls … the positive effect of exposure to a female leader dominated any possible backlash, probably because it gave women a chance to demonstrate that they are capable leaders.” And while much of the existing research on role models looks only at aspiration, their findings show a concrete impact on education and girls’ lives, she added.

The study was co-authored by Esther Duflo at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rohini Pande at Harvard University and Petia Topalova at the International Monetary Fund.

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