By Erin Kelly, March 31, 2015
Driving into Nizampur, a village in the Panipat District of Haryana, cotton clothing hung leisurely from window sills, children played in streets, hopscotching from one side of narrow roads to another, and a group of curious young children surrounded our car as soon as we arrived.
After greeting Asha*, the village’s Anganwadi worker, we were escorted from the narrow roads through the alley ways to the back room in a community center that is part health facility, part school and teeming with children. Anganwadi workers are community–based frontline workers, selected from the local community, who act as agents of social change, providing support for the improved care of young children, girls and women. These community workers were integral in connecting the families of girls to the Apni Beti Apna Dhan (ABAD) program, a government program designed to reduce child marriage in the state of Haryana, where early marriage still prevails.
It was the ABAD program that brought me to Nizampur.
Implemented between the years of 1994 and 1998, ABAD is a government-run conditional-cash transfer program that guarantees the family of girls who were enrolled 25,000 rupees, or about $400 USD, if – and only if – the girl remains unmarried at the age of 18. Specific eligibility requirements determined which girls could be beneficiaries of the program, including that the girl child must be from the Scheduled Caste, Other Backward Caste, or the General Caste and live below the poverty line and the girl had to be one of the first three children born to a family. The first of its kind, ABAD was designed, first and foremost, to enhance the value of the girl child, with the explicit conditionality of the girl remaining unmarried at age 18. With national rates of child marriage hovering close to 50 percent, the program was deemed forward thinking in its efforts to tackle this widespread problem head on.
I traveled to the Panipat District of Haryana with my Delhi-based colleagues to better understand the day-to-day challenges that girls in the communities across Haryana face and why the ABAD program was so necessary in the first place.
I knew from previous research that deeply entrenched patriarchal beliefs are pervasive across Haryana and have a profound effect on girls’ lives. For instance, if a family needs help in the household, it’s the daughter, rather than the son, who is forced to drop out of school to provide help. Rules around clothes that girls wear, the way they speak, and how and when they should be seen in public are all ways in which the community and patriarchal norms seek to control the behavior and sexuality of women. These factors lead to the near systematic discrimination against girls, and indeed, often lead to early marriage, with parents marrying their daughter off early in an attempt to protect and safeguard their honor. Early marriage and systemic discrimination, in turn, further reduce girls’ agencies and ability to exercise power and control over the trajectory of their own lives.
During our first stop in Nizampur, I met with a number of girls who were beneficiaries of the program, often trailed closely by their mothers, who told me about their lives and the barriers to their agency they face on a daily basis. Many of them told me about their aspirations, including that they wanted to do well on their upcoming exams, finish school, and pursue a job that inspires them. With the exception of one girl, whose mother was fully supportive of her dreams to go to college, the girls told me of the many barriers that stood in their way to fulfilling their dreams. Violence against women and girls in their communities, sexual harassment in public places, norms that restrict the mobility of girls, and the burden of domestic housework, which too often takes priority over girls’ schooling, were the most common barriers girls described.
Preliminary research by ICRW, released last year, found that the government-led effort indeed made a difference for those who participated: Beneficiaries of the program were more likely to stay in school and less likely to drop out than those who did not participate in ABAD. Among girls who dropped out, beneficiary girls attained higher levels of education than non-beneficiary girls.
Problems, however, still remained. While parents of the beneficiaries do value keeping girls in school, getting to school still remains a challenge. Violence, which is deeply rooted in patriarchal beliefs, has a profound effect on girls’ ability to move around in public spaces. The girls I spoke to said that since there is not a secondary school in Nizampur, girls must take public transportation, the only affordable option for cash-strapped families, to the secondary school in Panipat. Riding public transportation is often fraught with threats of violence, actual violence and routine sexual harassment, leaving girls who travel three to four kilometers to and from school every day vulnerable. Additionally, because schools are co-ed, many parents feel the need to safeguard the girls’ sexuality, by hindering their ability to develop romantic relationships and to avoid the possibility of elopement, which brings shame to their family. For some families, these factors are enough for parents to prohibit their daughters from going to school.
Later in the afternoon, we crossed the busy highway, arriving at another, more rural village called Baburpur, characterized by sand-colored buildings and construction trucks dotting the streets. Upon arrival, we were greeted by about 20 young girls, adolescent girls, and older women who welcomed us with open arms. After brief introductions, I spoke with several girls, who told me that despite myriad challenges facing them, including health complications such as seizures, which prevented one girl from going to school, limited financial resources, and sometimes, un-supportive parents who stood in the way of continuing their education, they had no desire to get married anytime soon and that they wanted to pursue the education and the career paths of their choice.
This sentiment was certainly not rare. In speaking with these passionate, articulate young women, I realized that it’s abundantly clear that girls want the agency and power to make their own decisions about their future, which has for far too long, according to cultural norms and entrenched patriarchal systems, been denied to them.
Despite the patriarchal attitudes they must face on a daily basis, girls themselves are eager to break through these barriers and challenge deeply-entrenched norms. In Nizampur, Darshita* told me that she wants to work in a bank, braving harassment on public transportation, resistance from her neighbors, and ultimately negotiating with her parents, to be able to attend college to focus on business studies. In Baburpur, I met Jaya*, who told me that when her dad recently passed away, she had to drop out of school to help her mother with household chores and work to earn an income. Through tears, she explained how her dad wanted her to finish school and become a police officer, and that it was her dream to pursue being a police officer not only to honor her father’s wish, but also to protect other girls and young women from violence in her community.
In just a few months, ICRW will be releasing new data that will give us a much clearer picture on how and where the conditional crash transfers were ultimately successful in increasing the value of girls, who from my conversations, were eager to see change. But in the meantime, it’s clear that girls and young women from Haryana’s urban alley ways to rural villages are trying to establish their own path and change their family’s perceptions of what they’re capable of, one day at a time.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed, and girls interviewed are not pictured in blog.
This material is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of ICRW and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.