New Delhi, (WFS) - Girls and boys between the ages of 10 and 19 - or adolescents as this age group is referred to - and their problems have received little attention and study in India, although they make up over one-fifth of India's population. Until recently, very few NGOs and government agencies even bothered to include teenagers in their empowerment and gender sensitisation projects.
Adolescent girls in India have received the least attention of all, even though they move rapidly from childhood to marriage and motherhood within the brief span of their adolescence. Those from poor urban and rural areas struggle with high rates of anaemia, early pregnancies, lack of financial independence, frequent reproductive tract infections (RTIs), domestic violence and vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. Despite the rising age of marriage and laws prohibiting early marriage, half of all Indian women aged 20-24 were married by the time they were 18 and a quarter by the time they were 15, according to a 1998-99 National Family Health Survey (NFHS).
How can the cycle of misery, poor health, discrimination and violence end for adolescent girls in India?
A livelihoods and savings programme in the slums of Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, run by Population Council, an international NGO focussing on reproductive health, along with CARE India (an INGO), attempts to address some of the issues and prepare adolescent girls for the future. While learning mehndi (hand and body painting with henna), weaving, tailoring, candle making, food preservation, bee-keeping, soft toy-making and cooking, the girls also learn about their bodies, reproductive health, relationships with the opposite sex, benefits of delaying marriage and earning independently. In 2002, about a 1000 girls (14-19 years old) in five slums chose some of the 21 short-term vocational courses offered. The girls were also offered counseling about savings, assistance in opening savings accounts and follow-up support to make sure they were able to use the acquired skills.
In the beginning, the project team found a high level of ignorance among girls about menstruation, the fertility cycle, sexual intercourse. While the parents pressurised them to marry early, they saw no wisdom in educating them about sexual health. So girls grew up with myths and misconceptions such as: touching by boys can cause pregnancy, one intercourse cannot get you pregnant, married women cannot get AIDS from their husbands, and abortion is illegal for unmarried girls. Boys, too, were ignorant about a lot of basics.
In order to attend meetings, 75 per cent of the girls had to take their parents' permission initially. But soon permissions were not required. "Since our parents allowed us to go for courses, they have changed. Now they allow us to go anywhere, we don't have to take their permission," says one girl from an Allahabad slum. When another girl was asked during the first survey why she had left school, she said: "There was no one to do the household chores and my father doesn't allow me to go out of the house." But once she joined the programme, she went back to school and said: "Sometimes my father says that I am always sitting at home and that I should go outside for a stroll. Then I go."
Not only could the girls move more freely in their own neighbourhood after they started attending vocational training, but they also made friends from outside their residential areas. The girls also said that they continued to use the skills they learned in the vocational courses. Those who did not use the skills said they lacked time and money to buy materials and equipment, or saw no demand for the products. Even so, some fiancés got worried that their future wives would have their own income. They asked the girls' parents to dissuade them from working. The survey found that some girls continued to work, and are struggling to change their partners' attitudes.
The Population Council team also found that 61 per cent of the girls opened and maintained savings accounts, instead of keeping savings at home or giving them to friends for safekeeping. A little less than half the girls had definite plans for the money, such as buying sewing machines or raw materials or helping younger sisters get married. The survey measured self-confidence and attitudes towards gender roles. Many more girls said they could convince someone else of something they believed in, and most were now confident speaking to a group. Only 23 per cent said boys made better leaders than girls, down from 68 per cent in the first survey.
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