Policies aimed at reducing gender discrimination can have unintended negative impacts on the very people they seek to empower – women – if cultural norms are not taken into consideration, several studies suggest. This calls for better planning of gender policies and a deeper understanding of the norms and culture in society, researchers tell IndiaSpend.

A financial incentive to have one child increased the probability that parents would choose to have sons. All-woman police stations have made it harder, rather than easier, for women to report crimes, inheritance rights for women have led to greater infant mortality and a ban on sex-selective abortions has resulted in reduced girls’ high school completion and university enrolment while also reducing access to safe abortions for women, studies have shown.

“There is backlash” from a patriarchal society when you try to change the status quo, said Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India, explaining why gender policies are more likely to have unintended consequences.

“If it [a policy] is not carefully designed, or if it is carefully designed but the implementation is poor, and there is no political commitment, then it may fail,” she said. “[Action on] gender issues [is akin to] taking two steps forward and one-and-a-half steps backwards. And then spending time to maintain that half-step gain.”

It is important to try and anticipate unintended consequences while designing policies, and to evaluate programmes under implementation, especially for gender policies that try to change deeply entrenched cultural norms, researchers say.

Representational image. Photo credit: PTI

Why unintended impacts

Gender bias runs deep in India, including among women. Of the population surveyed between 2010 and 2014, 1.72% had no gender bias against women, down from 8.6% of the population who had no gender biases in 2005-2009, found the United Nations Gender Social Norm Index. Just 3% of women had no gender biases, the survey found.

This manifests in India’s skewed sex ratio: 896 girls are born per 1,000 boys shows data from the 2015-17 Sample Registration System. During 2014-’16, 898 girls were born for every 1,000 boys.

Schemes and policies that seek to enforce equal treatment of girls and boys, and women and men, without being cognisant of this ground reality, will likely be circumvented with discrimination against women in other ways, research shows.

For instance, access to ultrasound technology to determine the sex of a foetus skewed India’s sex ratio because parents would choose to have boys and abort girls. When the central government banned sex-selective abortions in 1996, parents discriminated against girls later in life, found a September 2020 working paper by researcher Garima Rastogi and economist Anisha Sharma of Ashoka University.

Even as the ban improved the sex ratio, females born – in 34 states and Union Territories that enacted the ban – were 2.3 percentage points, 3.5 percentage points and 3.2 percentage points less likely to complete Class 10, Class 12 and enter university, relative to males, the authors wrote.

“We often end up swapping one kind of discrimination for another,” Sharma told IndiaSpend. “Pre-natal discrimination here is swapped for post-natal discrimination because son preference is so deeply ingrained in our population.”

The ban on sex-selection abortions has no effect on higher-income households, Sharma said. “These households are able to circumvent the ban and continue to sex select, and when they do have daughters, they do not discriminate against them.”

This discrimination might not be conscious. An article on a model analysis that examined the impact of equal inheritance rights for sons and daughters in four states – Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka – found that while the legal reform increased women’s autonomy, education level and age at marriage, it also increased female child mortality in those states.

“This is not to suggest that a rise in female child mortality [because of the inheritance law] is caused by parents consciously trying to kill their daughters,” author and development economist Daniel Rosenblum of Dalhousie University in Canada wrote in the 2014 paper. “Rather, it may be the effect of a subtle drop in nutrition or health services that slightly raises the probability of a child dying.”

Parents might prefer sons inheriting land because, in India, sons tend to live with their parents and are expected to take care of them in their old age, according to the paper. They might also fear that the daughter’s husband will control their land post-marriage and the daughter might not benefit from the land. So, if they are forced to give both daughters and sons equal inheritance, it might affect how they care for girls.

Similarly, the ban on sex-selective abortions has led to doctors being wary of conducting legitimate abortions, pushing women towards unsafe abortions.

Policy design matters

Flawed policy design too can contribute to unintended outcomes. The northern state of Haryana has dedicated police stations staffed by policewomen in an attempt to enable more women to access police stations and report cases.

The all-women police stations did not lead to an increase in the proportion of solved cases of crimes against women nor did it increase the reporting of crimes against women, found a 2020 study by researcher Nirvikar Jassal of Stanford University.

Women who came to regular police stations to lodge complaints were asked to go to the women-only police station, adding to the difficulty in registering cases, the study found. Thirty percent of gender violence cases are “cancelled” by the police across all police stations, Jassal wrote. Cases are usually “cancelled” because either officer believe the victim is lying or the victim withdraws the case, often after pressure from family or the community, the author wrote.

At the same time, policewomen at the special police stations were less likely to be tasked with a variety of investigative work than they would have had they been posted at regular police stations

“Female officers working in collaborative environments sensitise policemen to gender biases, yet if policewomen are physically and occupationally segregated in enclaves, patriarchal norms may remain unchanged,” the author wrote in the paper.

On the other hand, inclusive policies, such as reservation for women in political posts, work better at breaking gender barriers than those that segregate women, Jassal suggested.

Another example of a flawed policy design is Haryana’s Devi Rupak programme, which seeks to lower fertility (to encourage smaller families) and improve the sex ratio (encourage people to have girls).

The scheme provided monthly incentives to couples for 20 years if they choose to undergo either male or female sterilisation. The incentive is based on the number and sex of children the couple has at the time of sterilisation. If the couple has one child, the state gives them Rs 500 per month for a daughter and Rs 200 per month for a son. If the couple has two daughters, then they receive Rs 200 per month.

Given the strong preference for sons in Haryana, the design of the programme was such that it ended up encouraging couples to have only one son and increased the probability that the couple has only one boy by 5% to 11%, a 2018 study by S Anukriti, an economist at the World Bank, found.

She suggested that removing the incentive for having only one boy could reduce this unintended impact of sex selections at the first birth. “In general, the structure of programmes like Devi Rupak must be carefully designed to avoid unintended consequences,” she wrote in an article in June 2018.

Behaviour change

These unintended impacts fit into the larger question of whether “legal changes impact underlying norms such as son preference and patriarchy”? said Sharma of Ashoka University.

“When a policy or a programme is conceived, there must be a recognition of the gendered nature of women’s vulnerability and poverty as well as the specific structural barriers, social norms and gender relations that women and girls face,” said Muttreja.

For instance, the Apni Beti Apna Dhan (Our Daughters, Our Wealth, later renamed Aapki Beti Hamari Beti) programme, which started in Haryana in 1994, sought to be “gender transformative” by offering couples a Rs 500 cash transfer at the time of a girl’s birth and a Rs 25,000 incentive when the girl turned 18 years and was unmarried.

An evaluation of the programme by the International Center for Research on Women found that the monetary payment when the girl turned 18 years was seen as a payment to alleviate the “the burden of a girl’s marriage” with most of the cash being used or kept aside for marriage expenses. The programme increased the probability that a girl would be educated until Class eight but it also reinforced “the existing gender construct that girls are a burden and dowry is an essential aspect of recognising this burden to her marital home”, the study found.

The Apni Beti Apna Dhan programme looked at the economic aspect of women’s empowerment and led to a reaffirmation of dowry, Muttreja explained, adding that such a “narrow or disproportionate focus in one area” can often lead to unintended consequences. “This is what happens when we do not do the homework about when we should try to change social norms.”

Other researchers agree. “No problem has a single solution,” said Arindam Nandi, who focuses on maternal health and early childhood interventions, at Washington DC.-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, in the United States of America, explaining that a number of socio-economic policies together could be used to target problems.

Muttreja gave example of how media advocacy and entertainment education, along with other programmes, could be used to change deep-seated gender norms. A television programme, launched in 2014, called Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hun (I can do anything), tried to change gender norms through the story of a doctor who returns to her village from the city. The programme increased the acceptability of male condoms among viewers and of providing sexual and reproductive health counselling to young people, an evaluation by the Population Foundation of India found.

Representational image. Photo credit: Arun Sankar/AFP

Imbibing lessons

One way to think through long-term and unintended consequences of policies is to bridge the divide between academics and policymakers, who could together study the existing research and anticipate unintended impacts – positive and negative, suggested Rosenblum of Halifax-based Dalhousie University in Canada.

The problems India faces are not unique to India alone, pointed out Nandi. “There are rich databases and contexts about the unintended positive and negative impacts of policies [that India must refer to when formulating new policies],” he said, citing examples of conditional cash transfers in Mexico and Brazil.

While these cash transfers improved the educational and health outcomes of children, they had a limited impact on women’s autonomy within the households or on women working outside the home. As the cash transfer was given to women and linked with certain conditions such as the child’s school attendance or medical check-ups, these activities became linked with the mother and the “fathers/husbands are marginal to the workings of the programme, which in effect equates to being marginalised from the care of children”, wrote sociologist Maxine Molyneux.

Sharma suggested an increased emphasis on programmes that can offset the possible negative outcomes of policies, such as combining the ban on sex-selective abortions with cash incentives to families to keep daughters in school or the policy of giving bicycles to girls so that it is easier for them to reach schools.

Policymakers could also learn from successful programmes, researchers said. For instance, the Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana (chief minister’s cycle programme for girls) in Bihar increased access to education for girls and made them more mobile. “Despite Bihar being a feudal and patriarchal society, girls’ enrollment in school increased tremendously because of it,” Muttreja said. This was partly because the programme had political buy-in from the Bihar chief minister, who had set up an integrated council with secretaries from different ministries who not only designed policies but also monitored them, she said.

Another programme, the 1988 Mahila Samakhya initiative, which aimed to educate and empower women in rural areas, particularly from marginalised groups, was able to achieve intergenerational impacts on health, education and early marriage and on women working outside the home. This programme was designed by the central education ministry in collaboration with state governments, non-governmental organisations and women’s groups that were familiar with ground realities, Muttreja said.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.