Making right to dream a reality for all teenagers

Giving adolescents the future they deserve is indeed the dream of every nation. Despite significant progress on several fronts, however, India’s 243 million adolescents – constituting over 21 per cent of the country’s population- remain neglected. According to official data, almost 43 per cent girls are married before they turn 18.

Worse still, only 10 per cent of these married adolescents use family planning to avert early pregnancies, placing themselves and their newborns at considerable risk. Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the new development agenda for the next 15 years adopted at the UN General Assembly in September 2015 – calls for an urgent review of the gaps in current adolescent programmes and the generation of innovative solutions.

Various hurdles have stalled the progress of the National Adolescent Health Programme, Rashtriya Kishore Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) launched by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare in 2014, to cater to the reproductive health needs of 10-19 year olds.

Though sexual and reproductive health is included in the life skills education curriculum taught to senior school students, no special training is imparted to teachers to equip them to address these issues appropriately. Parents are equally unprepared to offer family planning advice to their offspring. The gender disparity among boys and girls also stay out of discussions.

Yet, girls can’t escape the consequences of their gender; violence, discrepancies in school enrolment, inadequate access to food and health services, a high risk of being trafficked, and discrimination in the work force. Current school programmes don’t address the psychological problems that arise from this bias, aiming instead to improve health knowledge, keep the girls in school or teach vocational skills.

For the first time, however, a new and exciting intervention with the potential to transform the lives of thousands of girls from marginalised communities, has made its presence felt. Called Girls First, this was developed and piloted by CorStone, a US based non-profit organisation. Results from a randomised controlled trial (RCT) of Girls First in 2013-14, involving 3500 girls and 74 community women facilitators in 76 schools in rural Bihar, show an improvement in the mental and physical health, school performance, social skills and relationships of t he participants.

Girls First promotes positive psychology by building “resilience” – the ability to bounce back and grow from challenges or crises. Contrary to popular belief, resilience is not an innate quality but the result of a set of cultivatable skills that can be learned and developed by youth, to help transcend poverty and other disabling circumstances. Girls First uses the Training of Trainers (TOT) model to build this asset in teenage girls.

Teachers or others from the community trained by CorStone facilitate hour long group sessions with 15-20 school girls once or twice a week. One such teacher is Kumkum Kumari. She initially resisted taking on the task. “The Girls First initiative meant extra work and rearranging classes.” Today, Kumari is pleased. She managed to overcame her initial hesitation and enrol for the four-day training arranged by CorStone. 

“Though the programme was intended to improve life skills of students, I have benefited greatly too,” she marvels. Aside from building self-awareness, Kumari says the resilience curriculum has also improved her communication skills. “Expressing my feelings to my family has reduced my depression,” she says.

Schoolgirls from Bihar who partici-pated in the Girls First sessions, also report an improvement in their lives, at many levels. “Earlier, I used to get angry and stop talking to my mother when she made me do housework that interfered with my school work, but now I stand up to her and express my feelings,” says 14-year-old student Komal Kumari.
Understanding gender and the violence it perpetuates has been life-changing, and many girls say that they have learned to use resources in their community to ensure their wellbeing and obtain justice for gender-related offences. “I can seek help from people around me because molesting a girl is a legal offence,” says Komal.

Emotional health

Other participants say the group work has enabled them to develop longer-term perspectives on their lives.  “I didn’t know that a girl could think about her life and future and how she would like things to be. Now I realise that girls can have dreams just like boys,” says 16 year old Saba Reyaz, another participant.

Two different curricula were developed and tested by CorStone; the Girls First Resilience Curriculum (RC) and the Girls First Health Curriculum (HC). While the RC targets social and emotional health, the HC aims to improve adolescent health and wellbeing as well. Using a combination of both proved most effective in building emotional skills, health knowledge and the concept of gender equality.

The next phase of CorStone’s work, called Youth First, uses this integrated module to target adolescent boys. Seventeen- year old Naushad Ali, who participated in a recent pilot of Youth First, says that this has precipitated a radical change in his outlook to females. “Before this, I thought that girls were only meant to cook, clean and look after children. Now, I realise that boys and girls are equal, and encourage females to speak up.”

Despite the barriers to school based interventions, the Girls First programme has managed to persist: scale-up trials involving over 30,000 boy and girl students in standards 6 to 8 in 300 schools in Bihar are currently underway in partnership with the Bihar Education Project Council (BEPC).
“The process being adopted by Girls First and Youth First will be emulated by national programmes, and the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) is considering an adaption of the communication materials used by CorStone in its Life Skills syllabus,” says Saroj Yadav, Dean (Academic), NCERT.

(The author is a microbiologist who writes on health issues)

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