Around half of the teenage girls (aged 18 years) in India have not completed secondary schooling. The non-completion of schooling was much higher among older girls/women.   Hence the number of years of schooling of an Indian female, on an average, is less than 4 years currently. Only 1 out of 4 females (of working age) takes up paid employment in industrial and service sectors of the country. These have implications for the social and economic development of the country as noted in a previous essay.

However the situation of girls in these respects is much better in Indonesia. The average years of schooling and the work participation rate of females there are almost 2 times of these in India.  Indonesia is not a developed country. The religion of the majority there – Islam – is not known for enabling education and employment of girls. However ,Indonesia is different. What makes the life of girls in Indonesia different from that in India[1]?

The practice of dowry is not widespread in Indonesia and instead, the bride-groom (or his family) has to pay money (bride-price) to the girl’s family.It is found that those groups which practice bride-price have a higher interest in educating girls there[2]. Girls with higher levels of education tend to get higher bride-price.

Where do girls live after the marriage also matter. Girls in Indonesia may not stay in husband’s family after the marriage. They may stay with their own parents (and with the husband) or in a new house different from that of her or husband’s parents. This practice is also helping the education of girls[3]. This may be so since parents do not think that the benefits of educating a girl are mainly to her husband’s family. Such a residence pattern is helping their participation in paid-work after the marriage since girl’s mother may share the burden of child-care. Girls tend to support financially, and take care of, their parents after the marriage.

There is not much fear among parents that their unmarried daughter may find a boyfriend if she works (and stays) in a far-away place. When I visited (lower middle-class) parents in different parts of Indonesia, they talked freely about the broken and continuing love-affairs of their daughters who work and live in distant cities. Arranged marriages have almost disappeared. Parents are not reluctant to send their daughters away for employment. Hence Indonesian women migrate to Singapore, Malaysia and West Asian countries in millions for taking up all kinds of work. Girls from rural areas migrate to cities in search of work after completing secondary education. Female and male workers live in adjacent rooms in these industrial locations and they interact freely. The higher mobility of girls has also made public spaces relatively safer for them. It is common to see working girls riding back to their homes in the suburban areas at 11 or 12 PM.

Married women have relatively higher level of financial independence in Indonesia. They often inherit land, own and manage small businesses including trade, and hold assets separately from their husbands.  Even when they take a break from the employment for child-delivery and infant-care, they come back to take up job or run business. Girls studying in universities, middle-class parents and all reckon the importance of employment for women. I could see middle-class women encouraging their daughters to go and live in distant cities and work, and where they find their life-partners on their own.

In summary, Indonesian women complete school education and participate in paid work wherever these are available. These are not affected by the efforts to popularize Islamic values by the Suharto government and religious groups.   Though there are problems in work places (lower wages, mechanistic work, and not-so-nice living conditions in the cities) these girls prefer to be in paid employment in industrial/service sectors rather than becoming a peasant, farm-worker or a homemaker.

It is not rare to see cases where the wife works in the city with a husband who continues in farming. One academic there told me: `There is a fluidity of gender roles in Indonesia.  Man or woman can be the main bread winner and if woman has a better job, then she goes out while man may continue with work in home/farm.’ Industrial development through liberal economic policies has created more jobs for women there. This has also changed the choice of parents regarding the higher education of their children. Though there was discrimination against girls in this regard in the past, it has changed to a great extent. The current trend is to educate that child who is likely to do well in studies. Hence parents may prefer, in certain cases, to send `smart girls’ rather than `lazy boys’ to universities. However there is nothing that works against the schooling of girls in Indonesia.

It is not that there are no issues of gender discrimination in Indonesia.For example, there is a need to get a `no objection letter’ from parents or husband for those females who attempt to migrate to other countries in search of employment, and academics consider this as a reflection of gender discrimination. There are a few communities which practice bride-price but girls relocate to husband’s house after the marriage. Here the condition of girls could be difficult since her in-laws may feel that she is bought by paying money and hence more work can be extracted from her. Despite the relatively better position of women in Indonesia, male control prevails in many ways and spaces.

India in comparison with Indonesia

Most communities in India exchange dowry and not bride-price. Hence, we can say that the practice of dowry has not discouraged the education of girls in India, since girls get education among the upper-caste and better-off sections of the society which also practice dowry. Yet there are people who prefer to marry off girls as early as possible without providing them higher education. They fear that higher levels of education of a girl may delay her marriage and/or increase the dowry to be paid. One can see two trends in India. Middle-class people prefer their daughters–in-law to be educated since they can be `proficient’ wives and mothers, and hence the parents among this class have an interest in the education of girls. However such a preference for educated girls is not there among the poorer sections, and they may prefer to marry off girls without providing much education.

Even if the residence of the girl in husband’s house after the marriage does not work against her education among certain sections, it may work against her participation in paid employment.  The fear about the potential harm (including possible love-affairs) seems working against the mobility of unmarried girls and hence their employment in locations far away from homes. Hence the majority of girls migrate within and from India along with the husband or family.

Even when girls migrate to other parts of the world (as in the case of nurses from Kerala) family continues have a control over their `moral subjectivity’ as noted in Walton-Roberts (2015)[4]. The pressure of social norms on these girls may create tension and conflict. When married women continue with paid employment, they have to maintain, what Radhakrishnan (2011)[5] notes, the emotional and material dedication to their spouses and domestic responsibilities.  Though the fear of female sexuality exists in many developing societies, the fear of inter-caste sexual/marital relationships could be an aggravating factor in India. The sexuality of the girl is to be controlled (by not allowing possible relationships with boys belonging to other castes and social groups) for the honor of the family[6].

There are parts of India where girls participate in paid employment after schooling (for example in garment factories). Tiruppur in Tamilnadu is an example where industrial employment is available to girls. Marriage impacts the employment in two ways here.  Sections of unmarried girls work in factories (and stay in high-walled hostels and move out with escorts) to mobilise the money for dowry. The majority of them stop working after the marriage. In our interviews with girls who dropped out of employment, they mention the `suspicion’ of the husband and the burden of household duties as the reasons for discontinuing employment. The `manliness’ of male workers discourage them to send their wives to industrial work. When these families face financial difficulties, the girls may become farm-workers. To some extent this is visible in Kerala too. Many girls wait for the marriage after schooling and/or college education, and depend on husband’s income after the marriage. When their nuclear families face financial difficulties, they may take up jobs but these can be the least remunerative ones. In essence, the lack of a practice to encourage girls to be in employment throughout their working life impacts negatively their and society’s overall welfare in India.

There may be an impression that the enabling situation for girls in Indonesia is due to their `culture’ and hence nothing can be done to address this problem in India. The latter part is not true. China and South Korea were like India in terms of gender relations. However these countries have taken decisive steps (one under socialism and another with capitalism) for the schooling of girls. These countries have also encouraged the migration and participation of girls in industrial employment. This has changed the situation significantly so that the practice of bride-price is catching up in China. (Its population-control policy too has contributed to this change). China has used incentives to discourage the residence of girls in husband’s family since such a residence was found leading to sex-ratios biased against women. When South Korea implemented a national social-security program, it reduced the dependence of older parents on their sons. This has enabled newly married couples to stay on their own.  All these have enabled the social transformation in these countries in a desirable direction.

India is yet to take effective steps for the education and employment of girls.

A detailed report of this study is available here:

[1] This is taken from a longer paper by the author: What Works Against the Schooling and Work Participation of Girls in India: An assessment through a comparison with Indonesia

[2] Ashraf, N. Bau, N., Nunn, N. and Voena, A.  (2014) Bride Price and the Returns to Education for Women∗,

[3] Bau, Natalie, `Cultural Norms, Strategic Behaviour, and Human Capital Investment,” 2014.Mimeo, Harvard University.

[4] Femininity, Mobility, and Family Fears: India International Student Migration and Transnational Parental Control, Journal of Cultural Geography, 32, 1, 68-82

[5] Appropriately Indian: gender and culture in a new transnational class. Durham, NC: Duke University Press (as quoted in Walton-Roberts (2015: 5)

[6] Jones, G. (2010) Changing marriage Practices in Asia, Asian Research Institute Working Paper, 131, National University of Singapore