Gender disparities: Empowering adolescent girls for social change
On the streets of Ahmedabad, India, hearing the cheerful shouts of adolescent boys playing gully cricket is as common as seeing girls of the same age waiting in long queues to fill water containers or walking miles to collect fodder or fuel, fearful of any delay that may entail reprimands. Girls in India are treated differently from boys –from receiving less health care, protection, sustenance and education to being forced into marriage and the risks of giving birth as early as age 15. In spite of regulations to protect their rights, girls, often face problems such as sexual coercion, abuse, forced sex work and violence that continue to threaten their lives and development.
The International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994, set the agenda for women’s protection, survival and development and urged countries to end child marriage and discourage early pregnancy. This conference advocated for access to information that would enable adolescents to take care of their reproductive and sexual health. Participants asserted that this access would help curtail the HIV/AIDS epidemic and lower the number of unwanted pregnancies and resultant complications.
Adolescents constitute 20 per cent of India’s population, a number that demands urgent attention. Since 1980, our mission at the Centre for Health Education, Training and Nutrition Awareness (CHETNA) has been to contribute to the empowerment of disadvantaged children, adolescents and women. We are committed to helping adolescent girls better understand and take charge of their bodies and lives as well as to raise awareness – particularly among boys and men – of how to address and respect girls’ needs. Our work is divided into two approaches: direct interventions and policy and programme advocacy.
Girls from one of the communities participating in our direct intervention programmes asked for bicycle-riding lessons. This request for increased mobility showed us their sense of empowerment. Three years later, some of these girls had initiated or completed their formal education; others expressed their opposition to early marriage; still others convinced their husbands to delay pregnancy and earned financial independence.
Our direct interventions prioritize the awareness raising of boys, strive to teach life skills development and promote the active involvement of adolescent boys in gender equality. The models, approaches and strategies used with adolescents can be mainstreamed.
Community members across programmes have come to understand the importance of maintaining sexual and reproductive health for girls and women. However, some had been reluctant to defer their children’s early marriages. As an alternative, we provided adolescent girls and boys with information on making reproductive choices, paving the way for the community to accept that these decisions belong to those most affected by their outcome. Empowered with enhanced understanding, young people are better able to become responsible members of the community who can exercise their right to health and contribute to the well-being of others.
As the secretariat for the National Alliance for Young People towards a Healthy Future,CHETNA promotes the active participation of young people in policy formulation and programme planning; implementation and monitoring; and evaluation at the policy level. We advocate for the convergence of government services to ensure access to quality, cost-effective reproductive and sexual health information, as well as health and nutrition services for all adolescents.
In India, our next challenge is to ensure the provision of youth-friendly health services. CHETNA recognizes adolescents’ right to access health centres with convenient working hours, privacy and friendly staff.
Social change cannot be brought about in a single stroke. It requires the will for change, a close examination of the facts and, finally, a collaborative effort with all involved to determine a solution. Only then we can plan for the next step forward.
To address the diverse needs of adolescents is a huge challenge. We believe that to empower girls we must equally invest in the development of boys. We dream of an equitable society where adolescent girls and boys are empowered to live healthy lives. Together with adolescents we can bring about a change in their lives.
Indu Capoor is the Founder and Director of the Centre for Health Education, Training and Nutrition Awareness (CHETNA), an NGO based in Ahmedabad, India, and committed to making a difference in the lives of marginalized women, adolescents and children of India. In the area of adolescent health, she advocates for comprehensive health care with special focus on gender equality.