India has demonstrated very strong leadership in positioning adolescent health as a priority in the recent past. Considering India is home to 253 million adolescents, constituting over 21 per cent of the country’s population, the country has every reason to take the lead in this direction.
In 2014, the Indian government launched the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (National Adolescent Health Programme), a comprehensive programme to improve the health of adolescents.
The programme brought in several new dimensions, like mental health, nutrition, substance misuse, gender-based violence and non-communicable diseases, alongside sexual and reproductive health.
It’s a given that influencing behaviours and attitudes for such a huge population is an extremely difficult task, especially in the marginalised and rural settings.
It is imperative that the policy makers look towards adopting new, effective interventions and innovative communication tools to connect with India’s adolescents for a 360-degree development, which will have a profound impact not only at this age but also their adult lives.
Simple, workable solutions
An organisation that develops and provides personal resilience programmes to improve wellbeing of youth worldwide, decided to take up the challenge and entered Bihar with their Girls First programme.
CorStone India Foundation recognised that prioritizing education and well-being is particularly important in Bihar where girls are at a high risk of arranged marriages starting at around age 14, when they are often forced to stop attending school.
As a result, 95 per cent of women in Bihar have less than 12 years of education, and nearly 70 per cent are pregnant by age of 18, which sharply increases health risks.
But how do you undo the complex reasons behind the attitudes, behaviour and societal norms leading to such poor statistics? The answer is a simple, interactive, facilitated peer group based emotional resilience based programme.
The programme curriculum integrates positive psychology, social-emotional learning, emotional intelligence and restorative circles. And to show how it works, let me tell you a story.
Meet a shy, submissive girls’ group of a government school in rural part of Patna district, who during a Girls First ‘Problem Solving’ session expressed that they were facing a serious problem of access to clean drinking water at their school.
In most schools of Bihar, drinking water comes from water tanks operated by hand pumps.
During lunch break, some male students would wash their hands in the water tank, contaminating the water and making it unsafe to drink for the rest.
There were instances of hand pump tampering by the boys as well. Though many girls had tried to come up with solutions in the past – like going back to their homes for water during lunch break or carrying water bottles from home, these solutions often ended up making them miss class or have inadequate water to last the whole day at school.
With the CorStone facilitators guiding the session, the group was eager to resolve this problem.
The girls started thinking of solutions and together they developed a three-step plan that they all agreed was safe and doable.
Step one was to form a united front and talk to the principal to get the water tank cleaned and fixed.
Step two was to take care of the pump by banding together with other girls at their school to make sure they stopped the boys to cause trouble with the water supply.
Step three was to put a lock on the water tank so that the boys could not wash their hands in that tank again.
The girls were enthusiastic, vocal and clear about the steps that they would take. It dawned upon them that they could work together to solve their problems. There was a confident, unwavering and powerful energy in the room.
This was just one of the cases that reflected the impact of this programme for adolescents.
Most girls in Bihar that I interacted with expressed that after participating in the CorStone programme, they felt issues like fear, anxiety, low self-esteem and poor health habits decreased significantly.
This programme is helping more girls stay in school, stand up for their rights, fight gender bias and advocate for themselves to stop early marriage, develop ambitions and improve their mental as well as physical health.
The Government needs to look at such success stories and adopt innovative approaches to redefine the status of adolescents in India.
Programmes targeted for adolescents should be collaborative in their interventions to include health, sanitation, hygiene, continuing education, gender sensitization and equality, sexual health, resilience and skill development.
– Namrata Bhalla works in public health communications for Footprint Global Communications based in New Delhi.
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