Gender & Adolescence

Program Goals

Program Director Jacqueline Bhabha and Research Associate Orla Kelly at a school in Rajasthan, India.
Program Director Jacqueline Bhabha and Research Associate Orla Kelly at a school in Rajasthan, India.

The Gender and Adolescent Agency program at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights investigates the factors impinging on educational access for marginalized, Indian adolescent girls, as part of a more general inquiry into agency and empowerment. The goal of the program is to probe the enduring challenge of female educational disadvantage in India in order to  generate an evidence base for enhancing the access of disadvantaged girls to education and to the social, economic and psychological benefits that this education is known to bestow.


The research began with the Shanu project in May 2010. Named after an adolescent girl who committed suicide shortly before data collection for the project started, the project was designed to investigate the obstacles to secondary school educational access and success for rural adolescents, particularly girls, in the northwestern state of Gujarat. The preliminary findings of the Shanu project on the structural, social and cultural barriers causing high female drop out at the lower secondary level, suggest pervasive and enduring barriers despite social progress in other fields. These findings informed the subsequent research questions and approach of our second research, the Champions project. Despite considerable improvements in primary school access and performance in India, comparable progress is not occurring at secondary and tertiary level. Poor rural females are most vulnerable to exclusion. The Champions project, investigates educational success by probing the structural triggers that enable girls from uneducated families to reach college level education. The study is investigating 800 students across 20 universities in the States of Maharashtra and Rajasthan.

Current Projects

The Shanu Project: Illuminating Barriers

In May 2010, the FXB Center launched the Shanu project in collaboration with the Indian Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a women’s union with 1.2 million members. The FXB Center was interested in determining the barriers to educational progression and gender empowerment for rural adolescent girls. The collaboration between FXB and SEWA took the form of an action–research project based in five small villages with high SEWA membership, in Patan District, in the northern, desertified part of the state of Gujarat. The research began with a large scale community assessment using quantitative survey and qualitative components, targeting adolescents and female care givers across the five villages. The survey gathered data on household profiles, community assumptions and expectations, availability and perceived quality of the economic and educational opportunities in the area, attitudes towards education and livelihoods as well as adolescent self report data on educational attainment, daily routine and responsibility, attitudes and aspirations. In January 2011, the team conducted interviews with teachers, and focus groups with adolescent girls in school, not in school, and their mothers to delve further into the themes raised in the needs assessment survey. The team found that the situation of adolescent girls was one of grave concern.  In particular:

  • Half of girls aged 14 to 17 are married or engaged. At age 10, more than 90% of boys and girls attend school, yet by age 14, less than half of girls are in school.
  • Advancement is inhibited by a plethora of factors including limited parental support, economic insecurity and lack of infrastructure (e.g. accessible secondary schools, safe transport, and adequate instruction to achieve performance standards necessary for secondary school participation).
  • The qualitative data showed that family dynamics, entrenched gender roles and expectations, and girls’ lack of autonomy are also negatively affecting their development and futures.

On the basis of the community assessment and subsequent village meetings, an adolescent educational intervention plan was devised in conjunction with teachers, villagers and education experts. Thereafter, adolescents who expressed interest in taking part in the education programs completed a baseline survey on numeracy, literacy, mobility, attitudes and other indicators of empowerment. Changes in these indices will be measured over the course of a year. Final results from the intervention evaluation will be collected analyzed and published once the end line survey has been executed, in Spring 2013.

The Champions Project – Unpacking Success

The Champions Project probes the enduring challenge of female educational disadvantage in India despite several decades of concerted government attempts to address the problem. Rather than focusing on the well documented barriers to female educational attainment, the Champions project identifies and explores the experience of the successful few for the benefit of the larger population. This model of research is based on the positive deviance approach.

This project is targeting current and future generations of young Indian women at risk of exclusion from the education system at secondary and tertiary levels due to economic, social and cultural barriers.  The study population comprises 800 young women in the second year of undergraduate study whose parents are illiterate, across 10 districts in Maharashtra and Rajasthan, respectively. The project will contain both quantitative and qualitative components in the form of structured questionnaires (800) and focus groups (12). The study aims to document the experience of these positive outliers in order to benefit the larger population of disadvantaged young Indian women.

The general question we wish to answer is: What are the key drivers of educational success for disadvantaged girls and what are the most cost effective expenditures to promote this for government?  More specifically, how have  these 800 “champions,” Indian female college students who are daughters of illiterate parents  in Maharashtra and Rajasthan, managed to overcome the numerous challenges to girls’ education and gain access to a college education? What are the infrastructural and social triggers of the girls’ success? Which public policies make the most significant contribution to their success (and, a related question, which public expenditures do not seem to be producing measurable results)? How might the productive policies be replicated and scaled to benefit future generations of Indian girls and women?

The timing of this project is felicitous and offers encouraging opportunities for impact at the state and federal level. The Indian government’s eleventh and twelfth 5 Year Plans (FYPs)  (2007-2012 and 2013-1018 respectively) establish secondary school as a major focus, to keep pace with an enlarged generation of aging students.

The Harvard FXB Center is implementing the Champions Project in consultation with the Indian National Commission on the Protection of Child Rights, an influential semi-state body mandated to promote a child rights perspective in national policy making. The Project has begun in Maharashtra, in partnership with the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, University of Pune, conducting research in colleges that form part of the University’s 600 college network.  The second research site of the project will be Rajasthan, where the local partner will be the Institute of Development Studies Jaipur.

The favorable political landscape coupled with the Center’s collaborative relationship with the NCPCR, local academic institutions, and key experts affords an opportunity for empirically based research to impact government policy.

Publications and Additional Resources

Bhabha, J. and Kelly, O. Child Marriage and the Right to Education: Evidence from an Ongoing Study in Rural Gujarat, India-Evidence Submitted to the United Kingdom All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health April 2012

Bhabha, J. and Kelly, O. Stimulating Demand for Girls’ Education: RMSA the Missing Piece (in progress)

Kelly, O. Access to Primary and Secondary School: in Encyclopedia of Global Social Issues   C. Bates (ed.) M. E. Sharpe Publications 2012

Kelly, O. and Newnham, E. Charting the difficult path to educational attainment: (The case of) adolescent girls in rural India in Coming of Age: Reframing the Approach to Adolescent, Rights, Bhabha, J. (ed.) Penn Press 2012 (in press)