Girls 20 Feature: Empowering Adolescent Girls in Delhi

Article Date

12 June 2013

Article Author

By Jennifer Abrahamson

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Priya and Talat will not be attending this year’s Girls 20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. But like most teenagers, both have big dreams and aspirations for their futures. And as is the case for adolescent girls everywhere, the path to adulthood in Delhi can be mined with both possibility and danger – and disapproving parents.  

“Whenever I watch Indian Idol and India’s Got Talent, I feel like ‘Oh I wish I could be there.’ I’m very fond of singing,” Talat explained. “But if I tell my father now he’s not going to encourage it because he’ll say it’s a useless thing to do.”

Priya said she also enjoyed singing, and upon request, both girls performed short solos, right there in the middle of the Self-Employed Women’s Association’s vocational school in Delhi, known as SEWA Bharat – ‘India’. Dulcet melodies like those sung by Bollywood stars pining for love rang out through adjacent rooms filled with teenaged girls who were learning how to stitch traditional Indian clothing and master graphic design computer programs.

Dreams of stardom aside, both Talat and Priya are taking a more pragmatic approach to life. At the SEWA Bharat Delhi center, they are taking advantage of a subsidized ‘empowerment’ program providing adolescent girls from low-income families with an array of vocational and life skills. Outside the building, the Yamuna River curved past, its shores choking with plastic bags, bottles and other detritus. Delhi’s bustling center was somewhere on the other side, far beyond this neighborhood where the girls both live.

Talat’s plans include finding a good job somewhere out there in the big city so she can ‘make a lot of money’ to pay for singing lessons. And Priya made it very clear that her first and most important goal in life was to become a policewoman, an ambition inspired by prevalent sexual violence in Delhi, and in particular, by the horrific gang rape and murder of a young medical student there in December. She has also witnessed terrible violence against women elsewhere, in the villages of her family’s ancestral homeland in Bihar, India’s poorest state. Perhaps not surprisingly, Priya was the second Indian girl I had met in a week who expressed a passion for protecting women as a career.  

Strengthening girls’ economic potential is not only critical for their own advancement; it is also vital for a country’s economic development. India loses $56 billion a year in potential earnings because of adolescent pregnancy, secondary school dropout rates, and joblessness among young women. Which is why it especially important to ensure that girls have the education, skills, and resources needed to be self-sufficient, pursue their future goals and contribute as equal members of society. The International Center for Research on Women’s (ICRW) last year launched its Turning Point Campaign which is focusing resources on research and programs that examine and address adolescent girls’ unique challenges to leading healthy, productive, and gender-equitable lives as adult women worldwide.

A recent ICRW scoping study looked at 47 development programs in India targeting adolescent girls, conducting more in depth analysis of 20 of those, in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Delhi. ICRW researchers examined interventions focused either on livelihoods or sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), or a combination of the two. They found that sexual and reproductive health and rights interventions in India – while critical – far out-numbered those focusing on adolescent girls’ livelihoods. They concluded that more programs that adopt a comprehensive approach to meeting their different needs – life skills, knowledge of SRHR and services, education and livelihood training and support –  are essential to helping more girls change the course of their lives.

Priya and Talat’s parents are migrants from Bihar and their mothers both dropped out of school, marrying in their mid-teens. The program at SEWA Bharat in Delhi will almost certainly provide the girls with a future their own mothers never had a chance to even consider. Not only have they learned soft business skills like accounting, banking, graphic design and English. They’ve also received lessons in subjects like ‘sexuality’, essential to their safety as they enter a male-dominated workforce. And once the course is over, SEWA assists girls with job placement and making market linkages for those girls who aim to start their own small businesses.

Priya sees the SEWA course as a stepping stone to achieving her dream of becoming a policewoman; she hopes it will help her find a white collar job (her own mother works in a garment factory) in a bank or office that will fund her college studies and training in law enforcement.Talat hopes the course will  help her get a job in graphic design — her brother has convinced their father that it is a viable profession — because it will allow her to be creative and use her mind while also saving money to pursue a singing career. 

Both girls were also quick to talk about their futures beyond careers – their roles as wives and mothers. Priya is a romantic at heart who hopes for a ‘love marriage’ with a modest, humble man one day – but not until she’s at least 25. Talat has a more pragmatic outlook, preferring a wealthy husband and an arranged marriage (love marriages only lead to fighting, she warned). But age isn’t so important to her.

“It’s not about age, I can get married at any age,” she said. “But only once I’m independent, once I’m able to stand on my own two feet.”

The specifics of the girls’ long-term interests clearly diverge. But what they share runs far deeper than Indian Idol or a love marriage: a chance to lift themselves and their future families out of poverty, a chance to pursue their dreams, and perhaps most important of all, a chance for a life that they choose for themselves.