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An education programme empowers adolescent girls to thrive in rural India
By Alistair Gretarsson
CHANDRAPUR, India, 18 March 2011 – In some of India’s most remote tribal areas, adolescent girls are finally being given the opportunity to thrive.
Traditionally, women in such areas marry young and often give birth to children when they are not physically or emotionally ready, at great danger to their own lives. But in at least one district, things are changing.
Anusaya, 14, lives in the village of Antapur in the district of Chandrapur, Maharashtra, central India. She is extremely shy but smiles easily. Until very recently, Anusaya spent her days at home cooking and cleaning, or in the fields, picking cotton under the hot sun to contribute to her family’s meagre income.
Today she plans to go back to school. It’s a complete turnaround from a few months ago when her parents started to plan her marriage. At that point, Anusaya had already been out of school for two years.
Return to school
Rukma, 24, is a ‘prerika’, or volunteer facilitator, at the local Deepshikha adolescent girls’ group. The Deepshikha programme works to educate and empower girls and ensure their increased participation in decision making that affects them.
Every child’s right to free expression is a guiding principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Now the adolescent girls in Chandrapur are becoming active members of their community and are themselves challenging discriminatory beliefs and practices.
Deepshikha was launched by UNICEF in 2008 in partnership with the Government of Maharashtra and local non-governmental organizations. There are now more than 2,200 Deepshikha groups in four districts in Maharashtra, reaching more than 50,000 adolescent girls.
“You can make a difference – a big difference – by capitalising on the energies of young women,” says Chief of Field Office for UNICEF Maharashtra Tejinder Sandhu. “Investing in an adolescent girl also means that you are investing not just in an individual, but a whole family.”
Potential ‘prerikas’ are identified by local village committees and nominated for a 20-day training programme in which they learn about child rights, health, and sex and gender issues.
After the first 10-day training session, each one goes back to her village, identifies local adolescent girls and invites them to form a Deepshikha group.
After completing 40 sessions, each Deepshikha is encouraged to form a Self-Help Group (SHG). The SHG opens up a savings bank account, with small amounts of money added each time, to form a small-scale fund. This is accessible to group members who need to cover essential education and healthcare costs. The money can also be put toward small business ventures.
“The first time I attended a Deepshikha session, my parents were confused and they told me I wasn’t allowed to go,” says Reshma. “But then, when I told them what I’d learned about how to improve our community, they agreed to let me.”
Reshma’s has since grown in self-confidence and her father is now a fervent support of the Deepshikha programme. “Look at the change in all these girls. They’re working so hard now and they have so much courage,” he says.
Of his daughter, he adds: “If she can now learn something, she can become someone.”