This paper explores the relationship between village girls’ schooling, their intrinsic capabilities and achieved re-gendered identities in western China during the tumultuous first decade of the 21st century.
Using an empowerment-capability framework developed by Seeberg (Seeberg and Lou 2012 forthcoming) which focuses Sen’s capability approach on rural girls schooling, we seek to explain what village girls themselves said they got out of schooling. In interviews 23 girls and young women from one village described how they valued certain functionings of well-being, agency and achievement, and how these were associated with attainment levels in schooling. We found that with rising attainment the girls gained empowerment capabilities and achieved more socially just gender identities. These gains were unequally distributed, neatly slicing the group into two clusters with distinct life paths. One cluster was composed of students who discontinued schooling in grades seven through nine and had gained a smaller set of empowerment capabilities and achievement, yet enough to leave the village for low-skilled jobs in cities where new opportunities allowed them to aspire to new functionings. The other cluster of girls who advanced through high school and college gained a larger set of empowering capabilities that they converted into more choices and freedoms and achieved more stable re-gendered identities. Both clusters achieved some re-gendered identity functionings, particularly some delay in marriage and decreased preference for boys and numerous children, which will enable them “to lead longer, freer and more fruitful lives, in addition to the role they have in promoting productivity and economic growth or individual incomes” (Sen, 1997, p. 1961) than did their mothers and even 10-year older cousins. The boarder-middle school experience seems to inoculate the GS against the worst vulnerabilities of their gender associated with family life.