PAWA is often asked why it focuses on teenage girls. Our answer is simple: they are the most vulnerable cohort. This period of life can be difficult for children anywhere, but for girls from low-income families in Asia, it is particularly fraught. Many are forced to drop out of school to take on the burden of domestic chores. Some are sent out to work to supplement the family income, and a smaller number are married off. The result of depriving these girls of education is not just a perpetuation of female subservience within patriarchal societies, but a very tangible loss of national wealth. Take the example of India —  currently, the contribution of women to the country’s GDP is one of the lowest in the world,  just 18% (less than half the global average). USAID estimates that if India enrolled just 1% more girls in secondary school, GDP would rise by $5.5 billion. A McKinsey Global Institute report states that the country could add up to $770 billion – or about 18% – to its GDP by 2025 by giving equal opportunities to women.

Ten years ago, the Indian government passed the Right to Education Act that made schooling free and compulsory for every child up to the age of 14. While this has led to an improvement in the number of girls attending school in the earlier years, the picture is less encouraging later on. The Teenage Girls (TAG) Report, a landmark national survey published in 2018 by the non-profit research organisation Naandi Foundation, found that while 92.3% of girls aged 13 were studying, this number went down to 65.5% by age 19. Other studies have shown a substantial geographical disparity within the country, with fewer than half of the girls in parts of northwestern India completing 10th grade.  The main reason behind this attrition in the teenage years is that girls are being forced to assume household responsibilities or help in agricultural work, or are simply deemed unworthy of investment in their future. Particularly in rural areas, a girl is still seen as a burden, and educating her a waste.

It is not enough for the Indian government to provide the physical infrastructure for the education of low-income girls. More must be done to address the logistical obstacles that so many of them face – from inadequate toilet facilities to unsafe modes of transport – and yet more needs to be done to provide greater security and bring down levels of gender-based violence, which remain distressingly high. Private institutions, NGOs and charities play an important role in the ecosystem of girls’ education, and perhaps most importantly, in helping to change attitudes and mindsets. The girls themselves are ready; the TAG report found little difference in the career aspirations of rural and urban girls -71.8% of rural girls and 80.2% of urban girls have specific work goals. The challenge now is for the rest of society to catch up.

Girls across Asia are putting forth their claims to a better future and PAWA’s goal is to help them realise these claims. We continue our efforts to identify and support small scale projects with a large impact, and in doing so we will hopefully bring a few more teenage girls closer to their dreams.

– Kamalakshi Mehta is a member of PAWA’s Management Committee

The Future is Teenage Girls