We must give our girls the chance to dream big
The physical and emotional well-being of India’s adolescents (10-19 years) needs urgent attention. India has 243 million adolescents, which is 21% of the entire population. There are only 920 girls for every 1,000 boys and these 8% of ‘missing’ girls are emblematic of the bias against the girl child that prevails in many parts of India. Nationally, more than 50% of women are anaemic, and 23% have low body mass index, issues that have their roots in adolescence. All data cited is from recent government sources, unless specified. Lack of knowledge about menstrual hygiene also contributes to adolescent health problems.
Younger teenage girls I meet through my work with the Antara Foundation in the villages of Rajasthan, speak animatedly of stepping out from the village, going to college, becoming teachers or joining government services. However, these girls also deal with pressures at home. They must balance school work with household chores; care for younger siblings; deal with parents who want them to drop out of school and get married. They have few opportunities to cultivate friendships. With these kinds of pressures, life can be intolerable, and suicide emerges as the leading cause of death among adolescents (The Lancet).
There is no reason why this tragedy should happen. The most obvious remedy is to delay the age of marriage. Almost 27% of girls in India are married before they turn 18, and that figure is as high as 35-40% in states like Bihar, Rajasthan and West Bengal. India has the maximum number of adolescent pregnancies in the world, resulting in malnourishment of both mother and child. A married child also faces more marital violence. State governments can do a lot, and West Bengal’s Kanyashree Prakalpa, to prevent early marriage, is a good example. Through it, there are awareness programmes in school, and parents get a financial incentive for delaying their child’s marriage by a few years.
The second step is keeping girls in school. School education broadens horizons, inculcates health-seeking behaviour, and provides opportunities for peer interaction. In India, 32% of adolescent girls do not attend secondary school (ASER). Long distances and lack of safe transport are key reasons. Bihar came up with a popular and effective solution — giving away cycles to young girls. There was an increase in the enrolment of girl students in class nine, from 1.5 lakh to over eight lakh. Improved education levels result in increase in the age of marriage — and there is no better example than Kerala, with a women’s literacy rate of 97.9% and early marriage prevalence at 7.6%
The onset of menstruation with puberty is a major reason why adolescent girls miss school days. Those five days of each month become an ordeal because girls have no ready access to sanitary napkins. States such as Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have introduced wonderful programmes to provide sanitary napkins in government schools, as one step towards keeping girls in school. The Hindi movie Padman (2018) contributed in its own way to normalising safe menstrual hygiene. In some schools, boys are being educated about menstruation, developing a heathy respect for women at an early age.
There is also a near term solution: involve girls in community activities. Some states have introduced sports programmes for girls, to provide a boost to self-esteem and assuage feelings of loneliness. In Rajasthan, my foundation is involving adolescent girls as health mobilisers in their local mohallas. Adolescent girls’ involvement in community kitchens in Peru has been instrumental in combatting malnutrition, and empowering women.
National programmes directed at the well-being of the adolescent are essential. The Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) is a great example, with innovative elements such as peer educators, dedicated adolescent health days and sex education. The Weekly Iron and Folic Acid Supplementation (WIFS) introduced in 2012, provides iron and folic acid supplements to over 100 million adolescent girls and boys, through schools and Anganwadi centres. Such programmes and many more are required to assist the adolescent girls of India through their transitional period with care so that they have a happy and healthy future.
Good steps are being taken, but in pockets. The situation calls for a concerted national campaign, like Swachh Bharat. It is time we all got involved: parents, schools, media, and donors. Give our girls the chance to dream!
Ashok Alexander is founder-director of the Antara Foundation, and author of ‘A Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, leadership and Courage from India’s Sex Workers’ (Juggernaut 2018)The views expressed are personal