Teenage girls in India: Aspirations and reality


Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

There are 80 million teenage girls in India. A clear understanding of their current realities and their aspirations is essential in order to design effective policies for them. However, a key impediment for data-driven policy design, in order to address the needs of teenage girls in India, is the absence of any representative survey. In order to address this gap, Naandi Foundation carried out the TAG (Teen Age Girls) Survey under the aegis of Project Nanhi Kali. Project Nanhi Kali supports girl children from under privileged families to complete ten years of basic schooling with dignity and safety. 

The TAG Report 2018 presents data from the TAG Survey on a number of aspects in the lives of teenage girls in India today. The survey not only captures baseline statistics on education and health but also, and uniquely so, aspirations of teenage girls. Survey respondents reported their aspirations on education, career, marriage, their ready access or the lack thereof to menstrual hygiene among other indicators that gauge their perceptions on safety and the idea of gender equality. Such data can help tweak program and policy design and, hence, aid in better-tailored service delivery.

Rohini Mukherjee, Chief Policy Officer at Naandi Foundation, presented some of the key findings of the TAG survey at a panel discussion held at Brookings India. Differences by geography and economic status were explored and are briefly presented under:  

  1. 80.6% of the sample teenage girls are in school. However, if we further break the data by age we find that the enrolment ratios among old girls are not as encouraging as the group average.

95.8% of the surveyed girls were unmarried and, encouragingly, 73.3% of them aspired for marriage after the age of 21.

A similar percentage, 70%, of girls report desire to pursue higher education. The goal of studying up to graduation emerges as a key variable affecting aspirations related to age at the time of marriage. An urban-rural split is clear with about 80% urban girls wishing to pursue higher education versus just about two-thirds of girls reporting a similar desire in rural areas.

About 74% of the surveyed girls wished to work after studies. A ten percentage point difference by area type—rural or urban— comes up as an area of possible policy intervention.    

An overwhelming percentage of young girls reported their aspiration to learn English. At a cursory level since English is a career enabling language, the aspirations to learn English can be understood to be a good proxy to gauge the willingness of girls to participate in the labour force.

Similarly, a high percentage of the surveyed girls reported a desire to learn how to operate a computer. Again, digital skillsets are strong career enablers and indicate a desire to being self-sufficient among young teenage girls.

About half the surveyed girls had healthy levels of haemoglobin while over 40% of girls have mild anaemia. Further, the non-anaemic status of a girl did not vary dramatically by wealth quintiles.

More than half of the surveyed girls were found to be underweight. While 46.3% who had normal weight were similarly distributed across wealth quintiles.

The report finds 54.4% of girls had access to menstrual hygienic management tools. However, in terms of wealth quintiles, we see massive variation. While 71.6% of the surveyed girls in the upper wealth quintile report access to MHM tools only 42.6% of girls in the lower wealth quintile report similar access. When inquired about reasons for not using MHM tools, about three-fifths of the surveyed girls reported that they couldn’t afford them and since the government does not provide them, they choose to stick to traditional methods.



Reasons for not using hygienic materials during periods

India (%)

 Cannot afford them/govt. not provided


 Don’t know how to get them/not   available


 Don’t know what sanitary napkins are


 Parents/customs do not allow


 Like using cloth/cloth pads




10. Ten soft skills such as the ability to fill up forms, go to the police station, withdraw money from ATM’s among others were identified. Less than 30% of the girls reported the ability to send or receive emails, use social media and make documents on a computer. However, over 90% of the girls stated the ability to make and receive calls. Seeing how these skills are mostly in the domain of essential life skills in a contemporary context, perhaps, focus on building them should be an area of focused interest.

The research team at Brookings India presented preliminary analysis on aspirations around one’s age of marriage. Key findings included a strong positive correlation between the historical age of marriage and current aspirations. This highlights the demonstration effect of existing norms that play a critical role in the development of personal preferences. In other words, we observe clear internalising of cultural norms. A critical factor that impacts these aspirations is the level of education of parents. Using the TAG survey, we found that girls with mothers who have completed their higher education aspire to get married at the age of 25.28 years versus a much younger aspired age of marriage of 21.67 years for girls with uneducated mothers.

It is clear that aspirations are embedded in social and cultural realities. Analysis of TAG data shows that girls belonging to the highest wealth quintile aspire to get married by the age of 23.82 years versus 21.07 years of age for girls in the lowest wealth quintile. Further, girls from the Hindu and Muslim communities aspire, on average, to be married by the approximate age of 22 years while the surveyed Christian girls stated an aspired age of over 24 years. Other variables of interest are access to MHM tools, mobile phones, and toilets. In all these cases, aspired age of marriage went up with greater access.

Dr. Farzana Afridi, ISI, who was a discussant at the event shared findings around her work on economic empowerment of women. Given how the education and working status of mothers have a strong demonstration effect on the aspirations of young girls this is an area of critical interest. Dr. Afridi highlighted that by the year 2011, only 20% of rural married women, between the age of 15-60 years, were a part of the labour force. This rate is a dismal 30% lower than unmarried women. While the workforce participation for unmarried urban women has improved by 11 percentage points over the period 1999-2011, that of married women has stayed stagnant over the past three decades. These findings bring out stark gender contrast when compared to men who have high and near constant participation rate of about 95%. In fact, if anything, married men have a higher rate of workforce participation.

Factors like lack of asset ownership, low investment in human capital, absence of strong social networks, and gendered division of time can be intuitively identified as key structural barriers to workforce participation for married women. She highlighted that one of the core supply-side constraint’s, besides cultural norms, is the absence of care services. In fact, the marked move towards nuclear families has further exasperated opportunities for married women. Demand-side issues include the lack of safe access to place of work, lack of low-skill jobs that suit the requirements of not highly educated women, flexible working hours and, of course, the persistent wage gap. She concluded by highlighting the need for evidence on the relative effectiveness of interventions and policies that address the multidimensionality of this issue.

Shubha Chakravarty, Senior Economist Social Protection and Labour Practice in South Asia at World Bank, was the second discussant at this panel. She highlighted that if the parents believe that it’s their duty to marry off their daughters then the sheer imperative of finding a good match would result in limitations in access to jobs. Hence, the structure of the marriage market in India results in many perverse outcomes in the area of economic empowerment of married women. Understanding these baseline structural barriers using rich methodologies to design future interventions should hence be a policy priority.