12.19.11

North Indian 'Apni Beti' Program Strikes a Blow Against Child Marriage

In northern India, where one in two girls is wed before the age of 18, the rate of child marriage is dropping—and an innovative program is paying girls to stay unmarried. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon reports.

In a cement-walled room at the end of a rutted road in the rural Indian district of Bhiwani, a teenage girl named Lado sits in a shaft of sunlight and talks confidently about her future. “I want to be a math teacher,” says the 17-year-old, her printed green scarf falling on to her lap. “I tell my parents, ‘Do whatever you want, but educate me. Let me go to school.’”

Welcome to the front lines of the fight to stop child marriage in a country where nearly half of all girls wed before age 18. The weapon of choice: cash.

Lado is part of an innovative program called Apni Beti Apni Dhan, or Our Daughters, Our Wealth. Launched in 1994 by the northern state of Haryana, the program gives poor families 500 rupees ($11, the equivalent of less than half a week’s pay) when a daughter is born, and also deposits money into a savings account. If the girl turns 18 unwed, she is eligible to redeem the bond, worth 25,000 rupees (roughly $500, or one third of an average yearly income). The earliest of the program’s approximately 150,000 enrollees turn 18 next year, offering a rare chance to study whether the program offers a solution other states—and countries—can use.

Whether it can be tied directly to Apni Beti or not, child marriage is on the decline in Haryana, which saw an 18 percent drop in the practice between 1992 and 2006. Haryana community workers say that thus far none of the program’s beneficiaries have been married off by their parents, who know of the program’s promised payout. The girls must sign for the bond, but it is likely their parents will have control of it because of social norms, and most of the girls say they want their parents to use it for their education anyway.

The stakes are high for the development of the booming Indian economy, home to both enviably strong 8 percent GDP growth (in a slow year) and the greatest proportion of the world’s child marriage cases. Young brides become young mothers with fatal consequences: pregnancy and childbirth complications top the causes of death among teenage girls, and babies born to mothers younger than 18 face a 60 percent greater risk of dying in their first year than babies born to older mothers. Girls who marry are forced to leave school, a costly loss: World Bank data show that for each year of secondary education, a girl’s future wages climb 10 percent to 20 percent.

“It is urgent, because we are talking about a whole generation of girls, 100 million girls in the world, who are going to be married as children if we don’t do something about it, and India is the largest contributor to that number,” says Dr. Anju Malhotra of the International Center for Research on Women, a Washington, D.C.-based global research institute that is now studying the impact of Apni Beti and whether it is a model that can be scaled.

The $500 payment is hardly a game-changing sum in the rich and fertile farming state of Haryana, where per capita GDP has tripled to $1,778, well above the national average, since 1999. But the program’s designers say the state is sending a message about the worth of girls, traditionally seen as burdens to be fed until they move to their husband’s home, where in-laws benefit from their work.

“They are considered to be owned, like a piece of property or an animal,” says Firoza Merhotra, a former Haryana government official who served as Apni Beti’s original architect. “We thought we should try and get women to be more valued. And this was one way.”

Merhotra notes that an updated version of the program is open to more families and pays much more at age 18, when girls receive 85,000 rupees, or $1,635.

For Lado, the Apni Beti money offers leverage in her struggle for upward mobility. Her parents married off her sister, born before the start of the program, at 15, but with the help of a supportive brother and Apni Beti’s promised payment, Lado is now in 10th grade at school—and she doesn’t plan to stop there.

“This program does matter to girls, because with it, they can do better in their lives,” Lado says, holding the brown-bordered Apni Beti enrollment certificate her mother received from the government 17 years ago. “I am happy about the help from this project, because I need the money to study more. This makes a difference.”

The Apni Beti program is maturing at a time when Indian women sit center stage in their country’s economic ascent. Women account for 15 percent of the country’s leading CEOs, compared to 3 percent in the U.S., and for nearly 40 percent of Indians enrolled in higher education. The better women do, the better the country does: “If you want to have the real development, it has to be development of the whole, not development of the part,” says Dr. Pam Rajput, founder of the Center for Women’s Studies and Development at India’s Punjab University.

“If there is balance in the society, then there will be more security for the girl, and parents will be more comfortable and then she will be able to go out of the house.”

In addition to encouraging families to see their daughters as assets, not liabilities, the program aims to “correct the demographic imbalance” and stop families from aborting or killing their female babies after birth. Haryana has one of India’s most skewed sex ratios: the state counts 877 females to every 1,000 males, up from 861 a decade ago, but well below the national ratio of 940 females for every 1,000 males.

While economic theory says scarcity increases value, Haryana’s low number of girls is endangering girls—and leading some families to seek earlier marriage for their daughters’ protection.

“Parents never feel secure; if there is balance in the society, then there will be more security for the girl, and parents will be more comfortable and then she will be able to go out of the house,” says Rajwati Dangi, a Bhiwani official charged with overseeing the program, whose office sits just above a billboard of a baby girl with the words “Don’t Hurt Me” across the top. “This is all due to imbalance of the sex ratio. If we disturb nature, we have to pay for it.”

Attitudes, not just savings bonds, are critical to improving the lot of girls and, in turn, society, says Dangi, who credits Apni Beti with helping to change mind-sets about early marriage among some families. There is, however, a long way to go in the larger battle.

“The family gives a revered position to the boy child; he is a special child, he is given better food, better education, pampered a lot,” says Dheera Khandelwal, finance commissioner for Haryana’s Department of Women and Child Development. “This is a transition phase where ultimately the girls are suffering.”

At Apni Beti’s launch in 1994, government officials hosted events to congratulate parents on the birth of their girls, an occasion usually ignored or celebrated only quietly out of shame that the child produced was not a boy. The high-profile attention showed that the government welcomed the girls—and wanted their parents to as well. Merhotra, the program’s original designer, says she knew that they were on to something when parents began passing out sweets to their neighbors at the arrival of a daughter—a treat usually reserved for sons.

Still, one program alone will not change a long-established tradition of undervaluing girls. Local officials tell of well-worn jokes in which a man crying “she has died” weeps not for his wife, but for his buffalo, which is harder to replace. And billboards in the 1990s advertised, “Pay 500 Now or Pay 5 Laks Later”—or pay for an abortion now if you’re carrying a girl or pay the steep cost of a dowry when she marries.

Such advertisements are now outlawed by the Indian government, which has banned sex-selective abortions and any kind of gender selection, though rumors point to their continued popularity among parents. Dowries also are prohibited, but that has not stopped the practice, which undoubtedly plays a role in pushing daughters out the door: for many rural families, a daughter’s wedding is the most expensive event of their lives.

Programs like Apni Beti and more recent schemes supported by governments across India aim to upend that economic ecosystem. Educated girls are said to require lower dowries; plus the girls bring money into the household when they go off to work. India is not alone in employing economic incentives: a program in Ethiopia offered parents a goat if their daughters remained unmarried during the course of two years—with notable success.

Some squirm at the idea of trading a girl’s opportunity for rupees or a goat. But those fighting child marriage, a practice Archbishop Desmond Tutu has likened to slavery, say dialogue and education alone aren’t enough. “You can’t put a price on a human being, but economics are one of the major drivers of the tradition in the first place,” says Malhotra. “Economics are fundamental to changing the culture.”

In essence, say child marriage experts, you must fight fire with fire. “You have to reprice girls; you have to give them a shadow value,” says Dr. Judith Bruce of the Population Council, a New York-based nonprofit focused on reproductive health. “Until you analyze the social contract and change the cost variables, you will not get change.”

Girls like Lado and her fellow Apni Beti participants are leading that change.

“Educated people are respected in society,” says 17-year-old Bimla, who is now in the 11th grade and says she wants to study accounting and work in a bank. “It is good to go outside the home and earn something.”

Bimla’s mother is one of many women interviewed who never had the chance to study because their families made them wives when they were only girls—an injustice they vow to fight. “I will use the money for her education,” says Bimla’s mother, Baby, whose parents arranged her engagement before she had turned 14. “I fought with my parents to stay in school. I don’t want her to have to do the same thing; I want her to have a better life.”