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News & Blog > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives: Gender > Skill for the Win

Skill for the Win

IDS Alum Shreya Ray (MA Gender & Development, 2009) tells us more about how skill-based training can change lives and livelihoods of rural girls — and most critically, shift patriarchal mindsets.
Photo Courtesy: Manzil Project, IPE Global.
Photo Courtesy: Manzil Project, IPE Global.

In 2021, when Archana, (21) a shy girl from Chomu sub-district near Jaipur, Rajasthan completed a vocational training course in soft skills to join HDFC Bank as a tele-caller, she didn’t quite have any idea of the impact it would have.  A poor potter’s daughter, Archana’s transformation since has been immense. From not being able to step out of home alone, she now confidently travels to Jaipur to work. She supports her brother’s education and has become a decision-maker in critical matters of her parents’ household.

Between 2021 to 2023, as India was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic and declining employment numbers, in a few districts in Rajasthan, the opposite was unfolding. Like Archana, over 6,000 girls aged 18-21 years, got jobs in this period after receiving skill-based training, and a further 12,000 more, currently mid-training, are on the cusp of being placed in jobs. It’s not just a case of finding employment —it’s finding employment for a category of the population hitherto considered unemployable. Young women belonging to extremely conservative, patriarchal societies.

Female labor force participation in India is a complex discussion. Despite overall economic prosperity, declining fertility rates, and increasing educational access, female labor force participation has decreased. To add to that, the pandemic has adversely affected the labour-force participation rates. In such a scenario, there is significant evidence, that prove just how much skilling programmes can do for girls — specifically rural girls.

Skilling programmes give jobs, support families, and also have the power to recalibrate caste and gender dynamics. Communities which traditionally positioned girls as burdens — and therefore didn’t invest in their daughter’s education — now look upon as them as breadwinners. Many of the girls that I interviewed in rural Rajasthan support their families on a monthly basis, looking after elderly parent’s healthcare expenses, and in the case of Archana — in a reversal of patriarchal roles — support the education of male siblings. Finances apart, they have grown in confidence, think independently, and have a significantly higher say in household matters. They are also challenging the traditional marriage and motherhood-obsessed narrative on gender in the community. 

3 young women holding textbooks

Photo Courtesy: Manzil Project, IPE Global

The Context: Poverty, Patriarchy & Poor Education

The combination of poverty, patriarchy and poor education standards in a large portion of rural India means that girls mostly stay restricted to the domestic sphere, and financially dependent on their male members.

In rural Rajasthan, where I spent some time this year studying the context of skilling for girls, I found that communities still work in traditional professions like agriculture, or small businesses — some of them family or caste-based, such as potter, ironsmith etc — and are heavily reliant on male family members to earn.  According to data from NFHS-4, only about 54% of girls can go to a local market alone. Further, tradition demands that girls marry early: nearly half of the population of rural girls in Rajasthan get married before they turn 18 (NFHS-4, 2015-16). These simply mean less economic/professional  opportunities. Even when they do get a chance to work, rural women typically are confined to lesser-paying jobs and jobs with fewer opportunities for skill-advancement and promotions (SIRU[1], 2022). In addition, rural women's access to vocational education is frequently restricted to professions that are ‘socially-acceptable’ and don’t require them to step out beyond their home or community spaces — mostly around the realm of beauty, tailoring & wellness.

Most families here are famously tradition-bound and patriarchal in their thinking. Hiding in the guise of tradition, is fear. Fear that families feel for their girl’s safety, which translates into control of their movements. Early marriage is one of the ways in which this fear translates. Madhu Laal, an agricultural worker in Udaipur district, was initially horrified at the idea of his 21-year-old daughter leaving home — as a single woman — to work in the city after completing a skill-based training course. “Anything could come to her — what will we do in such a case, and who would marry her then?”

These socio-economic challenges are mirrored — and exacerbated — when they converge with the education sector. Across India, high dropout rates of girls in secondary school has been one of the foremost challenges in secondary education. Poor infrastructure for girls in public schools (such as no girls’ toilets, no female teachers) distance to school, poor finances of families owing to which neither school fees, nor transport fares can be covered — all cause girls to drop out of school at the secondary level. The COVID-19 pandemic only heightened all these issues, with girls dropping out of school only to be engaged in domestic work or get married.

Monika, a potter’s daughter I met in a village near Kothputli, Jaipur district, could not take Science after tenth standard because the school in her village only offered Humanities — and the secondary school which did, was far from her home. “It was a private school and my father simply could not afford the fees, nor the transportation costs,” she says.

young women sat in front of desktop computers working

Photo Courtesy: Manzil Project, IPE Global

Of Skills and Sciences: Reversing Gender Equations 

While both the Centre and state governments in India offer various schemes and policies promoting skill development for youth,[2] specific approaches are needed to push women and girls — specifically rural girls — towards skill development and eventually, employment. There are however examples from the NGO sector, not just in India but also our South Asian neighbour, Bangladesh[3]  where specifically-designed initiatives for rural girls address gaps in the skilling sector.

The girls I met reported skill initiatives that have also encouraged them to pursue ‘non-traditional courses’ as opposed to the more ‘acceptable’ beauty-tailoring-wellness triumvirate. Courses like Healthcare, Retail, IT and Banking and Insurance and that over time have attracted these girls, owing to the wider opportunities they offer, and quite simply, being of interest to girls, than otherwise perceived. Vineeta from Bhilwara, a self-professed tech geek, reported devouring hours of technology vlogs on YouTube before an IT skills course allowed her to manifest her tech-dreams into reality. She now works as a programmer in Jaipur, living in a one-room studio near her workplace, always dressed in her trademark hoodie and jeans.

The ‘prestige value’ in certain ‘male-dominated’ sectors like Science, IT and Banking is apparent, and the girls are thrilled at being able to challenge and reverse these norms. Reshma, of Tonk district, who works as a general duty attendant, in a Jaipur hospital, revels in the adulation she receives from girls in her village, who refer to her as “doctor didi” (or older sister). Kothputli’s Monika could resurrect her interest in Science because of an IT skills course, and now works for a Pune-based organisation earning a salary of INR 21,000 per month, one of the highest salaries in their village. And as would be expected of a son in their community, she has taken on the task of renovating the family village home. Meanwhile, Archana from Chomu, has also convinced her (much older) brother-in-law to get his wife (Archana’s older sister) pursue the same training so that she can do the same job as her. “Three years ago, my family members barely listened to my opinion,” she laughs.

Last names have been withheld to protect identity.

Article created with input from Diksha Wadhwa & Smriti Chawla.

The author works in the area of gender and development. 


[1] https://www.investindia.gov.in/team-india-blogs/skill-development-prerequisite-women-empowerment)

[2] The Central government has in place policies such as PMKVY and DDUGKY. The Rajasthan state government has policies like Raajvik, SAKSHM, Samarth among others, through which various skill development courses are offered to the youth in Rajasthan.

[3] In Rajasthan, Project Manzil works to facilitate the gap between skill policies of the government, and the employment market. A similar example can be found in Bangladesh’s Project BALIKA  (Bangladeshi Association for Life Skills {https://www.popcouncil.org/research/balika-bangladeshi-association-for-life-skills-income-and-knowledge-for-ado})— which shows 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.

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