To reap demographic dividend, engage parents of adolescents | opinion$Comment | Hindustan Times
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To reap demographic dividend, engage parents of adolescents

In India, parents are the gatekeepers of their children’s futures. They remain the most important influencers and decision-makers in the lives of adolescents. Pilot programmes to engage parents in India, whilst few and far between, show that change is possible.

opinion Updated: Aug 14, 2017 11:15 IST
Parents and relatives of students waiting outside an exam centre in Chandigarh, May 2017. Parents serve as adolescents’ role models and their behaviour shapes adolescents’ views and understanding of the world around them.
Parents and relatives of students waiting outside an exam centre in Chandigarh, May 2017. Parents serve as adolescents’ role models and their behaviour shapes adolescents’ views and understanding of the world around them.(Sanjeev Sharma/Hindustan times)

India is at a critical demographic crossroads. Nearly a third of the population are young people aged 10 to 24. 200 million youth will enter working age by 2030. This is a huge window of opportunity for rapidly scaling economic growth as the size of our workforce reaches record levels. However, if our adolescents today do not have the means to become healthy and productive adults, India will fail to reap its demographic dividend and the lives of millions of young people will be compromised.

How can we ensure our country’s young people reach their full potential and maximise opportunities for growth? Reaching out to adolescents and engaging their parents are both critical parts of the solution.

The government has launched numerous programmes aimed at strengthening the capacity of India’s adolescents, including the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) to improve educational attainment, the National Skill Development Mission to provide skills training, and the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) to address health needs.

These programmes will certainly go some way in empowering and mobilising the next generation; yet, national investments are missing a key piece of the puzzle: Targeting the adolescents’ parents.

In India, parents are the gatekeepers of their children’s futures. They remain the most important influencers and decision-makers in the lives of adolescents, particularly girls. A recent survey of youth in Uttar Pradesh by the Population Council, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, found that nearly a quarter of 15 to 19-year-old girls who had discontinued schooling had dropped out because their parents considered education unnecessary. 40% of married girls had their marriages arranged by their parents without consulting them, and almost three in five were not permitted to meet their husband until their wedding day. Even today, as evident from the most recent NFHS Survey, more than one in four girls continues to be married in childhood.

In addition, parents serve as adolescents’ role models and their behaviour shapes adolescents’ views and understanding of the world around them. When adolescents witness their father beating their mother, as one in five in UP do, they are likely to develop attitudes that condone such violence, and in adulthood, perpetrate and submit to marital violence themselves.

For many adolescents, home life is heavily gendered and perpetuates conservative male-dominated attitudes. Survey after survey finds that boys often receive preferential treatment over their sisters, whether in housework responsibilities or freedom to spend time with friends, which informs adolescents’ expectations of gender roles.

Most parents actively oppose their children learning about sexual and reproductive matters. “If the one who doesn’t have any knowledge is taught about this, he would start doing chettai (mischief),” said a father in Tamil Nadu interviewed as part of the sub-national youth in India study, conducted by the International Institute for Population Sciences and the Population Council. “This education would give youngsters the opportunity to become bad.”

Pilot programmes to engage parents in India, whilst few and far between, show that change is possible. Project Sankalp in rural Gujarat, implemented by Chetna and the Population Council, advocated girls’ secondary education to parents through home visits and revitalised School Management Committees. It succeeded in increasing parental commitment to girls’ education and encouraging parents to push for school improvements. As a result, girls also had greater aspirations for their future education.

In a second pilot in rural Bihar, the Population Council and the Centre for Catalyzing Change held group parenting skills sessions to build knowledge of adolescent health and development, advance gender-egalitarian attitudes, and teach parents to communicate more openly on matters such as sexual and reproductive health. Although participation was limited and deeply entrenched attitudes were slow to change, exposure to the programme was associated with increased awareness of adolescent health among parents, a closer relationship with their children as well as greater confidence in discussing sensitive matters with them.

Parents matter. They need to take centre stage in efforts to empower the next generation. Programmes to engage parents that have worked in other countries need to be adapted for the Indian context, informed by research on what motivates parental behaviour and how best to advance behavioural change. More must be done to meet parents where they are, through existing platforms like women’s groups, farmers’ groups, workplaces and panchayat events. Without parental support, adolescents – especially girls – will continue to miss out on opportunities, and India will let its demographic dividend slip away.

Read: The full report

Shireen Jejeebhoy is a demographer and social scientist

Xiaowei Xu is a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation