ICRW’s Jennifer Abrahamson talks to adolescent girls about violence, child marriage and the cost of being young and female in India.
The Indian state of Haryana, a short drive from the capital New Delhi, is known for its social conservatism, a declining female population due to sex selection, and more recently, for a number of brutal rapes reported by the national media.
As I would soon learn, life in rural India is full of contrasts and contradictions. The first family I met wanted to tell me about a local unmarried heroine who at 25 took home a gold medal after winning an international wrestling competition.
“If she’d gotten married, then her concentration would have been on the household and her husband, but she didn’t, and now she’s doing really well,” Susheela, a 37-year-old mother of four daughters, told me.
Life is hard for Susheela but she still smiles a lot. She even smiles when the conversation finally turns to more serious matters: what it was like for her to be married as an illiterate child and move in with a strange family, in a strange village, miles from home.
“At 14, what had I seen? I never even went to school – parents didn’t send girls to school back then. I came here and my in-laws said ‘work in the fields,’ so I worked in the fields. Because I suffered, I didn’t want them to do the same. I thought it would be better if at least my daughters studied,” Susheela says.
Despite this recognition, – marrying their own teenage daughters off as soon as possible remains their priority due to deeply rooted cultural norms.
The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) is currently evaluating an innovative government program that used cash incentives to encourage parents like Susheela to delay marrying their daughters until they turn 18 – with the added hope that attitudes about a girl’s inherent value would improve. One of Susheela’s daughters, 17-year-old Kirin, is among the first girls to take part in the effort, called Apni Beti Apna Dhan (ABAD) – “Our Daughter, Our Wealth.” ICRW’s findings will be released in late 2013.
For now, Kirin and her older sister, Heena, 19, remain unmarried, and later this year, they will have both completed secondary school. Once Kirin gets her payment (worth $350-$500) the two girls will be immediately married in a joint wedding.
The girls have ambitions to continue on to college and start a career as teachers before settling down. Yet they seemed unsure if they would be able to lead a life outside of the home, despite their parents’ desire for them to study further.
“If our parents-in-law say we can’t continue our studies or get jobs, then we’ll have to listen to them and our dreams will only stay a dream,” Heena says.
Kirin, adds “I become hopeless and my heart breaks at the thought of not going to college. Boys have all the permission, they can go, but not girls, parents are scared. We want to go to Bhiwani town to study full time. But we can’t because of ‘the situation.’”
“The situation” refers to a spate of horrific rapes in the past several months in Haryana. In one of the most severe cases, eight men raped a 16-year-old girl. The powerful Khap panchayats which govern social affairs in Haryana, proposed a solution: lower the legal age of marriage for girls. Although they do not have the authority to do so, girls fear they will incur an additional cost for this escalation in violence against them.
“It is always the girl who is blamed. One does the bad deed, and the other always pays the price,” Heena says.
There is still a long road ahead to gender equity in rural India. But the fact that Heena and Kirin will both finish secondary school, and are still living at home, signals that a generational shift has occurred. At the very least, the quality of these educated sisters’ lives will undoubtedly far exceed that of their mother. Even if it’s unlikely they’ll ever become world class wrestlers.
Jennifer Abrahamson is ICRW’s Senior Director of Strategic Communications. A version of this story appears on the ONE Campaign web site. Not Her Mother's Daughter was Jennifer's last story about adolescent girls in India.
To learn more about how ICRW is working to “change the course for adolescent girls worldwide” visit the Turning Point campaign.
ICRW Senior Director of Communications Jennifer Abrahamson recounts her recent visit to Haryana, India, where ICRW is evaluating an innovative government program that uses cash to encourage families to keep their daughters in school instead of marrying them off at a young age.
Savita Singh, a slight 18-year-old schoolgirl who confesses she is poor at math but aspires to attend college to study Hindi and history, admits she has another, secret dream.
"I want to work for the Haryana police force," Savita told me, explaining that she is passionate about prosecuting families who she says abuse and sometimes even set fire to their daughters-in-law in the region. "But I know that my dream won't be fulfilled. I'm not tall enough."
Savita shared her secret with me in a cramped, dark room two days before the barbaric gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman in Delhi that caught the world's attention and sparked outrage across India in December. We sat on low charpoy beds, the wooden and rope structures that are ubiquitous in Haryana state, along with Savita's sisters, Kirin, who is 20, and Rekha, 15. High, concrete walls behind the girls were adorned with posters of Hindu gods and faraway places. Rekha and Kirin also told me about their ambitions to become teachers, to continue their studies, to wait to marry until they are ready.
While child marriage is still prevalent throughout India, the fact that the Singh sisters harbor such dreams at all may signal a subtle, generational shift in this conservative, agricultural state bordering the capital. Many women still practice a form of purdah here, hiding their faces behind a full diaphanous veil when in public or when in the company of non-blood related men. And until recent years it was extremely common for girls to marry in their early to mid-teens. Although illegal, they still do, but to a lesser degree.
One of those girls was Munni, Savita's 37-year-old mother who thinks she married when she was 15. Both Munni and her husband Amar, a soft-spoken farmer with high cheekbones, a kind face and a sixth-grade education, were determined to see all three of their daughters finish high school even if they can't afford to send them to college. Munni in particular was adamant that Savita and her sisters focus on their studies instead of working the fields.
"I never went to school because my parents had fields and I had buffalo to tend to and they said to me, 'what's the point of you going to school if you're only going to work with dung anyway? What's the point of pretending you'll be a Madam?'" she told me over hot cups of spiced chai in a modest courtyard just outside the girls' bedroom. "I feel very good that my daughters have the chance to study. Two things happen. One, a girl can learn how to speak properly – I don't know how to speak, my language is course as you can hear. And two, if a girl is educated she'll know how to manage the household accounts."
This was not the first time I heard such statements during my short visit to Haryana, where I met with a number of girls from poor families like Savita. She is among the first class of girls who took part in a Haryana government scheme established in 1994 called Apni Beti Apna Dhan (ABAD) – 'Our Daughter Our Wealth' in English. The government is now in the process of paying out bonds that were deposited in each participant's name when she was born. Today they are worth somewhere in the range of $350-$500; girls will receive them only if they were still unmarried at the time of their18th birthday last year.
The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) is currently undertaking an evaluation of the scheme to determine its impact on this first cohort of girls. Initial findings will be published in late 2013. While the ICRW evaluation is still underway and its findings are still far from conclusive, its seems the scheme may have, at least in part, contributed to delaying marriage for some participants – even if it didn't mean a fundamental change in attitudes about a girl's value.
The Singhs told me – as did others in Haryana with whom I met – that they decided to wait to find a husband for their oldest daughter, 20-year-old Kirin, until Savita receives the cash transfer (her father was just about to submit her paperwork when we met). Marrying girls in a joint wedding is relatively common in Haryana among low-income families as it helps cut costs. The Singhs youngest daughter, Rekha, is also scheduled to receive an ABAD cash transfer after she turns 18 in a few years' time.
Amar and Munni seemed especially enlightened regarding the importance of their daughters' education. However, after speaking with them in the fading afternoon sunlight next to a couple of lazing buffalo, it soon became clear that an education was mainly so important because it means increasing the chances of finding their daughters good husbands who hold down good jobs.
In the meantime, Savita and Rekha will continue their secondary school studies, while Kirin works as a teacher's assistant in her village. Savita knows marriage is on the horizon, but she recognizes the value of living out her childhood and staying in school – even if her future in-laws, whoever they may be, won't allow her to become a policewoman, or be able to finance a college education.
"I wouldn't have liked getting married at a younger age. I would have had to leave school and take on the responsibilities of another household," she told me.
When I asked Savita if she would have been able to care for a baby when she was still herself a child, she was quick to shake her head.
"This is my time to 'eat and drink' – my time to have fun, my time to be in my parents' house. This is the time when I can do it. This is my time."
Perhaps another shift will occur when the next generation comes of age. Perhaps Savita's own daughter will have the chance to go to college or become a policewoman. Just as long as she's tall enough.
This story originally appeared on Too Young to Wed, a multimedia partnership between the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and premier photo agency VII.
During this National Public Radio broadcast, ICRW's Priya Nanda discusses the vulnerability of women and girls in public spaces in India and the root causes of their unequal status in society. Nanda was joined by three other guests on the "To the Point" show to discuss whether the December gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old New Delhi woman marks a turning point in what many say is the cultural, legal and political oppression of women and girls in India.
The show begins at 8:00, and Nanda is introduced at 27:00.
Nanda is a guest on National Public Radio discussion about gang rape, murder of New Delhi woman
During this National Public Radio broadcast, ICRW's Priya Nanda discusses the vulnerability of women and girls in public spaces in India and the root causes of their unequal status in society.
During this National Public Radio broadcast, ICRW's Priya Nanda discusses the vulnerability of women and girls in public spaces in India and the root causes of their unequal status in society. Nanda was joined by three other guests on the KCRW (89.9FM) "To the Point" show to discuss whether the December gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old New Delhi woman marks a turning point in what many say is the cultural, legal and political oppression of women and girls in India.
Listen here. The show begins at 8:00, and Nanda is introduced at 27:00.
ICRW policy and advocacy briefs help inform regional plan to end child marriage
By Gillian Gaynair
ICRW policy and advocacy briefs that provide recommendations for preventing child marriage in Southern Asian countries were released in Nepal this week. The briefs will help policymakers develop a regional plan to end child marriage.
International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) policy and advocacy briefs that offer recommendations for preventing child marriage in nine Southern Asian countries was released this week in Kathmandu, Nepal during a regional consultative meeting of representatives from governments, nongovernmental organizations and others.
ICRW Asia Regional Office Director Ravi Verma participated in the event, which was organized by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, an inter-governmental body created by the governments of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Participants used the gathering to review commitments and actions on behalf of girls and develop a regional action plan to end child marriage.
The ICRW policy and advocacy briefs provided a regional perspective on the issue of child marriage, highlighted common challenges to preventing the practice and offered evidence-based policy options. Produced in partnership with UNFPA and other organizations, the briefs provide important guidance on how to kick-start strategies for reducing early marriage in a manner tailored to the unique context and needs of each country.
“Our advocacy kit and policy briefs provided the larger evidence-based background for these countries to design a regional action plan to end child marriage,” Verma said. He added that event attendees also drew lessons from evaluations of child marriage prevention programs worldwide to inform the regional plan.
ICRW's Madhumita Das writes about the Parivartan program in a blog for The Huffington Post. The blog is part of a series organized by Huffington Post and InterAction during the London Olympics, and includes blogs centered the connection between sports and gender, disabilities, peace building and other topics.
Views about gender roles improve among young Indian athletes in ICRW program
By Gillian Gaynair
Parivartan, a three-year ICRW program in Mumbai, India, used a sports setting to challenge boys’ notions about manhood and women’s roles in society. A final evaluation shows that many of the athletes’ attitudes, perceptions and behaviors about gender equity changed for the better.
New International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) findings show that Indian boys’ views about manhood and women’s roles in society became less patriarchal and more equitable after participating in an ICRW program that aimed to shift norms about gender equity.
The program, called Parivartan, drew in boys from Mumbai through the popular sport of cricket and challenged them to question traditional notions of manhood present in many societies, including their own. Results from ICRW’s evaluation provided proof that sensitizing boys to gender issues can potentially change stereotypes they hold and their attitudes about violence against women.
Unfolding over three years among boys ages 10 to 16, Parivartan capitalized on cricket coaches’ role in the young athletes’ lives to impart the program’s key messages. It required the coaches, too, to shift their own ideas about expectations of men and women in society.
“Parivartan demonstrated that role models for youth – in this case, sports coaches – hold great potential as conduits for helping to address and change seemingly indomitable societal norms,” said Madhumita Das, an ICRW senior technical specialist who directed Parivartan. “What we don’t know yet is if the changes that took place among program participants will remain with them into adulthood.”
Parivartan’s athletes hailed from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum: middle- and upper-class youth from Mumbai schools who had paid coaches and practiced their game in their cricketer’s white on a manicured field near a country club in downtown Mumbai; and boys from Mumbai’s slum community of Shivaji Nagar, who were coached by mentors close in age and practiced on dirt or asphalt, where they used recycled equipment and sometimes ran in sandals or barefoot.
Modeled after the Coaching Boys into Men program by Futures Without Violence (formerly Family Violence Prevention Fund), ICRW sought to test whether the influence of coaches and the sports setting could serve as a venue – like home and school – to learn about gender roles and relationships. Experts aimed to document how attitudes, perceptions and behaviors did or did not change among athletes – as well as their coaches.
“Coaches are more than just instructors of sports techniques. They’re also role models,” Das said. “So we wanted to value this unique relationship of coaches’ with their athletes, to have them channel positive messages to young men about manhood and respect for women.”
The study sample consisted of 168 athletes in 26 Mumbai schools who were exposed to the Parivartan curriculum, and 141 athletes from 19 schools where the program was introduced later. This design provided a means of comparison, to gauge the effectiveness of the program. Similarly, 168 athletes from Shivaji Nagar took part in the program, while 133 athletes from another community served as the comparison group.
Researchers sought to answer three questions: (1) What changes occurred in gender and violence-related attitudes, perceptions and behaviors among the Parivartan athletes? (2) What effects did participation in the training and the overall program have on the coaches? and (3) What changes did the wives, mothers or daughters of the coaches perceive as a result of the men’s participation in the program?
In general, ICRW found that attitudes about gender equity and violence against women shifted for the better among the young cricketers. The coaches’ mindset and behavior also evolved positively.
ICRW determined the changes by asking the athletes to respond to a series of statements centered on stereotypes around manhood and roles for girls and women. This included questions such as, “A wife should always obey her husband” and “Only men should work outside the home.” The participants were asked at the beginning and end of the Parivartan program to indicate on a 5-point scale whether or not they agreed. ICRW compared responses among athletes from the school setting, the slum community and the groups who did not receive the Parivartan curriculum.
Among ICRW’s findings was that most young cricketers supported a more traditional view of manhood when the program started – a view where boys are not expected to be faithful to girlfriends, where they must always act tough and where they believe they’ll lose respect if they talk about their problems. “This suggested that despite their young age, many boys had already been exposed to and internalized the idea that real men are tough, unfaithful and unemotional,” Das said.
Those perceptions had changed for most by the end of the program. However, many participants said they still believed that only men can work outside of the home – one of the more deeply-engrained cultural expectations.
When ICRW looked at changes across the three areas researchers studied – boys’ controlling behavior, manhood and masculinity and girls’ and women’s roles – it found that Parivartan participants’ attitudes about gender roles had changed significantly, compared to those who did not participate in the program.
An important transformation took place in the Shivaji Nagar athletes’ opinions physical abuse of girls: they became less supportive of it. Such violence is not uncommon; many girls in India, particularly those from poor neighborhoods, are not valued much by their families or others in their community. Many don’t have the chance to attend school or have much say over the course of their lives. To that end, some men and boys see girls as disposable and to be controlled – sometimes, by using violence. In the Parivartan study, most young athletes agreed that a girl does not deserve to be hit if she doesn’t finish her homework, obey her elders or argues with her siblings. However, there was still somewhat strong agreement – specifically among the community athletes – that a girl deserves to be slapped or beaten when she doesn’t help with household chores.
“Particularly in poor communities, girls are often seen as a big support to handle household chores and look after their younger siblings,” Das said. “More importance is placed on that role in the home, regardless of how young they are, than in getting an education.”
It’s unclear whether the positive changes in attitudes and behavior that ICRW found will stick as the young men grow into adults. To guarantee such an outcome, ICRW recommends that Parivartan be institutionalized into the settings to which teenagers connect and learn, so that its messages are consistently reinforced.
While the formal program in Mumbai is no longer, Parivartan is expanding its focus and working with a new group of youth in a rural area: Now, it will be Parivartan-Plus, and part of the U.K. Department for International Development’s STRIVE effort to address social inequities that continue to fuel the AIDS epidemic. The program will take place in rural Karnataka, in southern India, and along with addressing violence against women, it also will tackle sexuality and the links between alcohol and substance use and HIV.
Gillian Gaynair is ICRW’s senior writer and editor.
Improving Sanitation and Hygiene Practices of the Rural Poor through Community Institutions in Uttar Pradesh
Shreshtha Kumar, Shahrzad Rouhani, Abhishek Gautam and Madhumita Das 2015
The Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) program, implemented by the Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana (RGMVP) was implemented in 2012 to empower women by organizing them into microcredit-linked self-help groups (SHGs) to increase the demand for toilet construction and therefor increase positive WASH outcomes. The program was designed to impact an estimated 21,000 households across 80 villages in two districts (Sultanpur and Amethi) in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
ICRW conducted both a qualitative situational analysis and a quantitative baseline study to assess the socioeconomic parameters of the project area, as well as to understand the sanitation and menstrual hygiene practices of those in Sultanpur and Amethi.
This process documentation outlines the project’s design, its necessity, its operating structure and the program’s impact. The document explores the challenges to implementing comprehensive WASH projects and provides recommendations for how programs can improve future WASH projects.
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