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An education programme empowers adolescent girls to thrive in rural India

'The State of the World's Children 2011 – Adolescence: An Age of Opportunity,' UNICEF’s new flagship report, focuses on the development and rights of more than a billion children aged 10 to 19 worldwide. This series of stories, essays and multimedia features seeks to accelerate and elevate adolescents' fight against poverty, inequality and gender discrimination.

By Alistair Gretarsson

CHANDRAPUR, India, 17 March 2011 – In some of India’s most remote tribal areas, adolescent girls are finally being given the opportunity to thrive.

VIDEO: 22 February 2011 - UNICEF's Geetanjali Master reports on a programme that is helping young women in rural India.  Watch in RealPlayer


Traditionally, women in such areas marry young and often give birth to children when they are not physically or emotionally ready, at great danger to their own lives. But in at least one district, things are changing.

Anusaya, 14, lives in the village of Antapur in the district of Chandrapur, Maharashtra, central India. She is extremely shy but smiles easily. Until very recently, Anusaya spent her days at home cooking and cleaning, or in the fields, picking cotton under the hot sun to contribute to her family’s meagre income.

Today she plans to go back to school. It’s a complete turnaround from a few months ago when her parents started to plan her marriage. At that point, Anusaya had already been out of school for two years.

Return to school

Rukma, 24, is a ‘prerika’, or volunteer facilitator, at the local Deepshikha adolescent girls’ group. The Deepshikha programme works to educate and empower girls and ensure their increased participation in decision making that affects them. 

© UNICEF India/2011/Alistair Gretarsson
Anusaya, 14, lives in the village of Antapur in the district of Chandrapur, central India. With the help of a UNICEF-supported adolescent girls' group, she has avoided child marriage and returned to school.

When she came across Anusaya crying out of fear about her impending marriage, Rukma decided to speak with her parents. Anusaya’s parents had married young, and believed it was in their child’s best interest to do the same. After repeated visits from Rukma, they agreed to call off the marriage.

Because of Rukma’s efforts, 15 adolescent girls have now returned to school. Women here do not usually speak in public, but Rukma believes they should be able to talk to anyone.

“The girls ask me, ‘How will we ever get rid of our fears?’” says Rukma. “We are trying to give them the confidence and an education so that they can grow stronger.

The girls have already come a long way. “In the past, they didn’t even have the courage to leave the house,” says Rukma.

Empowering girls

Every child’s right to free expression is a guiding principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Now the adolescent girls in Chandrapur are becoming active members of their community and are themselves challenging discriminatory beliefs and practices.

© UNICEF India/2011/Alistair Gretarsson
Rukma, 24, is the 'prerika', or volunteer facilitator, of a UNICEF-supported adolescent girls’ group which is empowering girls like Anusaya (right).

Deepshikha was launched by UNICEF in 2008 in partnership with the Government of Maharashtra and local non-governmental organizations. There are now more than 2,200 Deepshikha groups in four districts in Maharashtra, reaching more than 50,000 adolescent girls.

“You can make a difference – a big difference – by capitalising on the energies of young women,” says Chief of Field Office for UNICEF Maharashtra Tejinder Sandhu. “Investing in an adolescent girl also means that you are investing not just in an individual, but a whole family.”

Potential ‘prerikas’ are identified by local village committees and nominated for a 20-day training programme in which they learn about child rights, health, and sex and gender issues.

After the first 10-day training session, each one goes back to her village, identifies local adolescent girls and invites them to form a Deepshikha group.

Widening horizons

After completing 40 sessions, each Deepshikha is encouraged to form a Self-Help Group (SHG). The SHG opens up a savings bank account, with small amounts of money added each time, to form a small-scale fund. This is accessible to group members who need to cover essential education and healthcare costs. The money can also be put toward small business ventures.

© UNICEF India/2011/Alistair Gretarsson
Rukma is a single mother and a volunteer facilitator at the local Deepshikha, or adolescent girls’ group. The Deepshikha programme promotes increased participation among girls in decision-making that affects them.

Reshma, 17, is bright-eyed and confident. A few years ago, her parents decided she shouldn’t attend school. Reshma began learning how to sew clothes but soon realised that she wanted to do more. When the Deepshikha group started in her village, she decided she wanted to be part of it.

“The first time I attended a Deepshikha session, my parents were confused and they told me I wasn’t allowed to go,” says Reshma. “But then, when I told them what I’d learned about how to improve our community, they agreed to let me.”

Reshma’s has since grown in self-confidence and her father is now a fervent support of the Deepshikha programme. “Look at the change in all these girls. They’re working so hard now and they have so much courage,” he says.

Of his daughter, he adds: “If she can now learn something, she can become someone.”



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