The Teen Age Girl report must serve as a clarion call to empower girls
India’s Republic Day celebration had, among the main attractions, an all-woman marching contingent. The armed forces showcased the role of women in the force on its tableau. As India marches ahead, it is time that she is led by women. Given that in 2020, the average age of an Indian will be 29 years, the aspirations of 80 million teenage girls of India captured in the recently published Teen Age Girls (TAG) Report 2018 needs urgent attention.
The TAG Survey began in early 2016 to understand what it means to be a teenage girl in India. No one had asked this question before, certainly not to a 74000 strong sample of teenage girls, who represented all the 80 million teenage girls of India.
The TAG Survey was designed to move beyond perceiving adolescent girls as prospective mothers, who need to give birth to healthy children, or as vulnerable soft targets who need constant protection.
During the course of a year, 1000 trained women surveyors reached villages in 600 districts equipped with digital tablets to record interviews, and equipment to measure the height, weight and haemoglobin levels of India’s teenage girls. Through this, it was clearly understood that India’s teenage girls are ready to lead the transformation of our economy. Marriage before the age of 21 is not something they would even consider, as economic independence before getting married is non-negotiable for them. Learning how to use a computer and speak English are essential — from Kutch in the west to Changlang in the east, Bandipore in the north to Tirunelveli in the south.
The nation’s report card on teenage girls tell us that:
▪ 80.1% girls are studying;
▪ 95.8% girls are unmarried;
▪ 70% wish to pursue higher education;
▪ 74.4% wish to work towards a specific career;
▪ 74.4% girls want to marry only after they are 21 years old;
▪ 40.4% are forced to defecate in the open;
▪ 45.7% do not have the access to a hygienic menstruation kit;
▪ Every second teenage girl is anaemic with a low Body Mass Index
While their aspirations are big, if these problems are not addressed, they will not be able to realise them. With the 2019 general elections around the corner, the fact is that approximately 65 million teenage girls will be first-time voters. And f the 80 million teenage girls of India were to publish their own manifesto, this is probably what it would look like:
One graduate school for girls in every municipal ward and, say, for every five gram panchayats, where they can: get a degree, have access to computers, a clean set of toilets with sanitary napkins and incinerators to dispose of used ones, and be proficient in English. Affirmative action through scholarships, exclusive buses for mobility, special schemes that empower them to move about freely, sports facilities and campaigns to rid society of the taboos associated with their wellness and health, are imperative.
An exchange between one of our young women investigators for the survey and the sarpanch of a village in Gazipur, Uttar Pradesh, proved that inequality is entrenched in the system. When insisting that the survey requires the direct involvement of the girls (through questionnaires), he was puzzled at our (misplaced, according to him) faith in the girls’ ability to answer our questions.
This TAG report serves as a clarion call for all political parties to include teenage girls in their election manifesto. Let their clamour not fall on deaf ears. Promote the essence of the TAG Report, summarised in their hashtag, #ListenToHer.
Manoj Kumar is the CEO of Naandi Foundation, Hyderabad
The views expressed are personal