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Empowered for Life: skilling rural girls can alter the demographics of South Asian countries

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

Providing skill education to the youth, especially girls, can pave the way towards improving the socio-economic development of not just South Asia but the world. This is a special piece in recognition of World Youth Skills Day.

Project Manzil aims to upskill women and girls in rural areas by providing vocational training.

In March 2021, almost a year after the launch of Manzil — a project that works with girls from vulnerable sections of Rajasthan to skill and place them in jobs — the WHO brought out the World Ageism report. Among the many issues of the various age-groups it looked at, was that of unemployment amongst youth, citing lack of skills as one of the top reasons. India, with the largest population of adolescent and young people in the world, is a critical player in that context, in the way skilling unemployed youth can change the demographics of not just the country but the world economy.

Within this, it is critical to pay particular attention to the demographic of rural young girls (age group 18-21 years). These girls are most socially vulnerable and run the risk of early marriage and pregnancies. And yet, if imparted the training and guidance, this age group can also be crucial in turning the unemployment and declining female labour force numbers around, also having a cascading effect on the coming generations. This forms the core premise of Manzil.

The Indian Context: A Large Unskilled Adolescent Population

The Indian government has taken several initiatives towards skilling for youth. The Government of India has initiated skill programmes like Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Kaushalya Yojana (DDUGKY) and Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojna (PMKVY) to help the rural youth get employed. These are supplemented by state government programmes: for instance, the Rajvik scheme launched by Rajasthan Government, and the Surya scheme started by Haryana Government. While these schemes are oriented towards the marginalized, the real challenge lies in getting young people — especially girls — to complete these courses, get placed in jobs and continue working.

There are complications in implementation. For instance, skill courses, fully-funded by the government, are run by private training providers, the latter exhibiting biases towards boys in their selection process. In other cases, like DDUGKY, where there is a mandatory reservation for girls, the centres tend to limit their outreach to either urban girls or girls within a radius close to their centre. Also, the skill centres are located at district or block headquarters, considerably away from core rural areas. Distance is arguably the single biggest factor influencing the participation of rural girls in these courses.

For instance, when Project Manzil started, across six districts in Rajasthan, it conducted a primary survey in 600 plus villages and found that close to 90% of the girls between the 18-21 years and/or their parents, did not want to go beyond 5 kilometres of their houses to pursue the skilling course. This restriction on mobility is a combination of social norms, as also genuine concern surrounding security and non-availability of public transport from long distances. Even after a girl agrees to join a course, the next hurdle is a limited number of skills on offer for her. Very often, the most common courses available to girls are beauty and tailoring courses, irrespective of where their aptitude or interest lies. Also given the large distance, the availability of residential courses, as opposed to day courses, is important for girls.

Last, and perhaps the most difficult step in the skill ecosystem is assisting girls to get jobs following their skill training. This is a giant leap in several ways, where, from a relatively (over)protected environment, the girl steps into a world of independence, all alone. There is also enormous resistance from the parents and community to send the girl out to work and in most cases, local opportunities are either non-existent or minimal.

On the supply side too, there are challenges. The job economy is where rural India finds itself competing with forces of capitalism. In any job, a candidate is measured on the basis of their education, competency levels, and of course market value of their relevant skill sets including qualities like confidence, communication. Not surprisingly, girls from underprivileged corners of remote Rajasthan, don’t fare well on such parameters, falling behind competitors from urban centres, who have better education, more exposure and quite naturally, better communication skills. As a result, only the low-paying jobs are left for the former, with many companies just looking at them cheap labour. Several of these girls, disappointed with the salaries being offered either choose not to join or leave soon after joining. In other places, these job profiles are left for third-party hiring. These recruiting organisations work for profit — they neither care for participation by women, nor will they invest in the required counselling of these girls to ensure they understand the work demands and are able to adjust to their jobs.

Multi-stakeholder Involvement for Multiple Issues: Lessons from South Asia

Given the exceedingly complex nature of ensuring employment for rural youth, it may not always be feasible for national governments to see the processes through in their entirety. What is needed is a multi-stakeholder involvement and investment to address the challenges in this domain. In South Asia alone, there are two examples — Project BALIKA (Bangladeshi Association for Life Skills {}) in Bangladesh and Manzil in Rajasthan, India — which show that for rural young girls to be employed, soft components like counselling, and life skills training require as much attention as skill-based technical training. As per an evaluation by Population Council, Project BALIKA used three separate interventions - educational support, gender-rights awareness training, and livelihood training – with the goal to empower girls and delay marriage in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, Project Manzil has shown how mapping the aspirations of youth, — especially young girls — and reflecting on the trade choices is key to improved attendance and job retention. Employability-skills training focusing on computer education, communication, and financial literacy can address some crucial gaps that are of value to the private sector. In addition to this, longer skill training such as diploma courses, may address the issue of quality to some extent. Further, short term courses may not always be adequate to address years of systemic deprivation for these girls. Most relevantly, the demand from industries should drive the trades being taught, preferably around the region of its work. Local employment is a very relevant indicator to increase girl participation, at least to begin with. In addition to this, industries should be involved as key employers not only for their junior-level workforce but also across other levels. This approach requires regional and sector-specific customization.

Lastly, going back to the point about ageism, it is critical to note the ageism in our approach to jobs for rural youth. In our approach to development, we have fallen short of responding to the need of the rural youth. We have not been able to fully map out their aspirations, the skills/trades that they value and their constraints. We still haven’t recognised age-appropriate jobs that would be coveted by them — where they would also be valued by the employer. It is clear, a lot of thought and public debate needs to be put towards this, and policies need to be designed to support them more. While solving this conundrum seem like an insurmountable task, as we march towards the SDGs, there is no way that India as an emergent economic world power, can afford to leave behind its rural youth.

The authors work in the social sector in the space of gender.


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