New Delhi: Adolescents in large parts of the world have it hard. They face a future of uncertainty given the growing xenophobia, harsh climate changes, conflict, migration, extreme poverty, and the growing lack of access to food and clean water.
In India, where adolescent girls face specific risks of gender discrimination, sexual violence, early marriage and pregnancy, the challenges are more complex. Young girls struggle with gender role perceptions, lack of role models, peer pressures, coping with bodily changes, menstrual hygiene, family planning choices, choice of career and educational aspirations.
“India has this bias against girls driven by many factors”, says Dr Poonam Muttreja, Exeuctive Director, Populaton Foundation. “They regard the girl as a liability, who will be sexually abused or will be sexually active so she has to be gotten rid of. The other is dowry and as the girl gets older, they have to pay more at the time of marriage”.
In this scenario, programmes focusing on building their emotional and physical wellbeing are critical. The findings presented by Girls First, a program that was introduced in the states of Bihar, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh seem promising. The initiative, started by CorStone India, is working in rural communities where girls are at high risk of early marriage and pregnancy.
Girls First aims to equip them with knowledge, skills and support to improve personal resilience and physical health. The age group of girls in the program is 12-16 years; many of them are the first to attend school and face the risk of getting married when they reach puberty.
“Mental health has to be seen in the context of the whole environment”, said Steve Leventhal, executive director of CorStone, at the recently held 11th World Congress on Adolescent Health. “The programme focuses on building the latent strengths in a person and the community. “
Schoolteachers and local community women play a critical part in the programme. They undergo a training session for a few weeks after which they reach out to the girls. They are the key because they not only teach the girls, but through them take the attitudes home to their parents.
“In Bihar, we have the case of a 14-year-old girl who was able to successfully resist her parents’ plans to marry her off,” said Leventhal. “Not only that, she went on to stop five child marriages in her family.”
Random control trials done in Bihar four years into the programme showed that emotional resilience increased by 33 per cent, health information by 99 per cent and attitudes about gender equality by 18 per cent.
Similar programs among young boys on gender equitable behaviour like Project Raise by Equal Community Foundation in Pune and West Bengal, and Ehsaas by SNEHA in the slums of Mumbai are showing positive outcomes. “We have to raise our boys differently” said Ms Muttreja. “The focus cannot be only girls and women while we continue to socialize our boys badly.”