In this paper we consider whether it is possible to improve women’s welfare and make progress towards gender equity despite prevailing restrictive gender norms or whether real change requires a shift in norms and how they are enforced. We leverage a randomized experiment in rural Rajasthan, a highly conservative part of India, to compare two approaches to improving the outcomes of adolescent girls. The first targets only the adolescent girls (in a way that is similar to many existing programs) encouraging them to stay in education and be aware of costs of early marriage. The second additionally targets the prevailing norm structures by engaging with the wider community and community leaders. We find that while there was a significant reduction is school dropout and rates of early marriage amongst older girls in both groups, the overall well-being of the girls (captured by mental health measures) only improved with the addition of community engagement activities; we also find that this positive well-being effect may have arisen through a reduction in the threat of violence that girls’ perceived they would face for breaking gender norms. Our results suggest that in settings with restrictive norms, wider norm change is key to improving women’s welfare and that while interventions that target women only may be effective at improving some outcomes, they may risk jeopardising overall well-being through exposing women to greater risk of sanctions.
Written with Alison Andrew (UCL and IFS), Abhishek Gautam (ICRW), Gabriela Smarrelli (Oxford), and Hemlata Verma (ICRW)