Varanasi: Meera Yadav of Perehta village in the Mohanlalganj tehsil of Lucknow remembers a time when her parents—her father is a milkman and farmer and her mother a housewife—and brothers did not allow her to meet any people from the outside world.
“The kitchen and the household was all I ever knew,” she said. “I didn't even know how to talk to anyone outside of my family.”
Today, Yadav, 22, leads various campaigns in her village to help women find employment and spreads awareness among adolescents on issues of gender discrimination, her efforts lauded in 2018 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Yadav is one of the participants in a series of initiatives started by Breakthrough India, an organisation that works to eradicate gender-based violence and discrimination, as part of the interventions introduced in seven districts in Uttar Pradesh (UP). The Adolescent Empowerment Program started by Breakthrough India, with support from the IKEA Foundation, addressed four key thematic areas: health, education, gender, and violence. Between 2016 and 2021, it engaged with 150,000 adolescents.
At the end of five years, findings suggest a downward trend in gender-discriminatory attitudes: Adolescents who were part of the program also had higher school enrollment rates, were more aware of their rights, had a more gender-equitable attitude towards the division of household labour and were likely to recognise and intervene in violence within their families and outside.
The programme has been lauded by administrators and other experts.
“The adolescent empowerment program adopts an approach that is not condescending, rather it brings in community members as equal stakeholders,” said Ruchita Chaudhary, a deputy commissioner of police in the state capital of Lucknow. She said many programmes that worked with children or adolescents faced considerable resistance from family or society, which limited their impact.
Chaudhary cited Breakthrough programmes that sought to explain the process of filing first information reports (FIRs), the first stage in criminal proceedings, to young women and offer counseling and mediation in some cases.
The police are currently conducting the Shukr Hai Surakshit Hai campaign, which organises awareness drives for women’s safety every Friday. “The success of AEP is a testament to the fact that dedicated and consistent effort bears fruit even in the case of social problems that are deeply entrenched,” said Chaudhary.
“The programme’s unique social-ecological approach to facilitating change is its biggest strength,” said Shailesh Nagar, associate director of NR Management Consultants, an external evaluator of the AEP, tasked with evaluating what works and what does not.
“Comprehensive engagement with the community gives the opportunity to regularly course-correct and finetune the interventions being made to its specific needs,” said Nagar.
The programme worked on three broad components: gendered division of household chores, inter-gender communication, and marriage. For young adolescents between the ages of 11 and 14, a two-year school-based programme was designed to inculcate in both boys and girls the importance of agency and the awareness of their rights.
Self Confidence And Communication
The AEP tries to build self-confidence by helping young people develop negotiation skills and starting inter-gender dialogues on the primary challenges that they face in the family and the community, such as hurdles in acquiring education, unjust distribution of household chores and freedom of movement outside home.
The programme engaged with girls in the 15-18 age group in anganwadi centers, with a focus on career counseling and creating awareness about sexual and reproductive health. Frontline health workers were also trained to start frank, stigma-free communication with young adolescents, so that issues such as contraception and menstrual health could be better addressed.
Peer leaders, usually individuals over the age of 19, were identified and trained to become youth leaders in their communities. They worked with small groups of adolescents towards building a more gender-equitable environment in their immediate settings, such as within the family.
To engage with the wider community, AEP employed popular culture and the arts, reaching out to teachers, parents, and other family members using video vans, theatre, music and dance.
Putting Boys To Work
In villages where interventions were made, boys who reported doing household chores increased steadily. There was a corresponding reduction in the average number of hours that girls spent doing household chores.
At the end of the intervention period, a positive attitude towards a more gender-equitable division of household chores increased by 40%. The programme also recorded a statistically significant increase of 31% in attitudes acknowledging that girls need as much time as boys for leisure.
Even after the intervention, girls on average spent 30 minutes more on household chores than boys, indicating that the burden still disproportionately falls on girls across age groups.
“I grew up with everyone around me believing that women should only stay at home and do household work,” said Lokesh Kumar, a B.Com student who lives in Kapera Madarpur near Lucknow and has been associated with the Breakthrough programme for three years.
“Breakthrough’s programme helped me break that notion, and now I work towards encouraging women in my family and community to study further,” said Kumar.
However, attitudes in response to statements such as “girls need to learn household chores before marriage’’ were considerably lower, indicating that norms around household chores are more rigid when their functions were considered important for marriage. This finding also held true for norms on boys and girls talking to each other and mobility.
Paying Attention To Health
The Breakthrough programme recorded a marked increase in the number of adolescents accessing health services.
In the 19-22 age group, 27% more girls had greater awareness of public initiatives, such as village health nutrition days, while the numbers stood at 17% for girls in the 15-18 age group and 10% for girls in the 11-14 bracket.
In areas where interventions were made, 15% more girls in the 11-14 years category, 41% more girls in the 15-18 years category, and 38% more girls in the 19-22 years category responded they had received counseling on menstrual hygiene.
“Becoming a part of Breakthrough’s awareness campaigns was also the first time I visited a primary health center and heard of tetanus shots and the health benefits of iron pills for deficiencies,” said Yadav.
There was an 11% increase in the enrollment rate of adolescents in educational programs, marking a positive shift in the overall attitude of adolescents and parents in the five-year period.
This shift was also evident in the negotiations on the subject of education. Girls were better able to negotiate on how much they wanted to study with the highest impact of 21% in the 15-18 years old age group saying they were able to better negotiate the class up to which they wanted to study. It was 17% for girls aged between 19 and 22 and 10% for girls in the 11-14 years old age group.
Mobility to places such as anganwadi centers showed a significant increase across all age groups: 16% in the 11-14 age group, 45% in the 15-18 age group, and 52% in the 19-22% age group. A similar increase in mobility was also reported with respect to markets: 27% in the 11-14 age group, 30% in the 15-18 age group, and 35% in the 19-22 age group.
Over the course of the five-year period, the average age of marriageability for girls in intervention areas went up by almost two years, from 16 years to 18 years.
Education was found to be a common tool used to delay marriage especially by girls, and most parents and adolescents now consider 18 years as the threshold for the marriage of girls. This is an important statistic, since one in every five girls in UP is a child bride, according to the National Family Health Survey 2019-20.
The Girls Who Changed A Village’s Name
“We had been told from the beginning that there are rigid boundaries between what men can do and what women can do,” said Anjali, who goes only by her first name. “Any argument about these rules was always met with scoldings, sometimes beatings.”
For years, the formal name of Anjali’s village in Gosaiganj block near Lucknow was Kudamau, which loosely translates to a place where waste is collected. After being introduced to the Breakthrough programme, Anjali started a campaign called ‘Lakshya’ with a group of other girls to change their village’s name to Sundernagar or beautiful town.
The campaign was not easy to run when it began.
“Our parents did not approve of the idea, and village elders told us that things should be left as they are,” said Anjali. “But we saved our pocket money to buy buckets, brooms, and brushes, and painted walls in the village to spread awareness. We also wrote letters to the village pradhan.”
Their effort seems to have borne fruit: while they are still trying to get the village’s name changed on paper, Sundernagar has been adopted as the name of choice by natives and nearby villages.
At 20, Anjali is completing her M. A. and hopes to become a teacher and social worker. “When other people in the village look at me now, they tell their own daughters that you can do it too,” she said. “I want to help other people the way I received help and work for the progress of the village.”
As part of Taaron ki Toli, Breakthrough’s flagship project which consists of a group of girls who take forward advocacy in their own communities, Anjali has also worked with many families in nearby villages to stop the early marriage of girls.
The Battle Against Tradition
“An important step in the process is creating a platform where adolescents can communicate with their parents,” said Krati Prakash, the UP head of the adolescent empowerment programme (AEP). “We encouraged them to have conversations where they could thank their parents for what they have done for them so far, and talk about their aspirations for the future, like wanting to finish school, or enrolling in a degree program.”
An increase in demands from adolescents in areas of education and economic independence, however, also often causes parents to face pressure from the community, which often opposes changes in tradition.
Findings at the end of the intervention period suggested that while adolescent attitudes towards marriage improved, adolescents and parents faced resistance from the community in cases where parents attempted to make it easier for boys and girls to talk to each other or travel more freely.
To tackle this problem, Breakthrough’s initiatives have taken an approach that is conversational rather than confrontational.
“When we start conversations with the parents of adolescents, we do not say that their way of living or thinking is wrong. Instead, we ask questions like what dreams did they have for their lives when they were younger? What is the kind of life that they want their kids to have? It helps bring them together in a manner that treats them as responsible agents in their children’s lives with important roles to play,” said Prakash. “Our motto throughout has been jaano, jaago, jagao (wake up, wake up, wake up).”
“When people from Breakthrough started visiting our village, they had to sit down with my father multiple times and convince him before I was allowed to attend their sessions,” recounted Anjali. “Their thinking changed slowly only after they saw other girls stepping out and after repeated reassurances from the team members at Breakthrough.”
Violence At Home Remains Endemic
Another aspect of gender-based discrimination that can be challenging to address is the issue of violence, which occurs more often within the household than outside. National Crime Records Bureau data from 2019 showed an increase of over 66% in violent crimes against women in UP over a period of four years.
In areas where interventions were made, adolescents reported witnessing violence 36% more than experiencing it. Violence within the family, either witnessed or experienced, was similarly reported much lesser by adolescents than violence witnessed or experienced outside the family.
While the violence witnessed across all age categories at the end of the intervention showed almost the same levels as at the beginning, the reporting of violence experienced declined across age and gender categories.
Data showed that the level of violence experienced within the family was reported to have declined in the intervention period: for boys, the reduction was by 4% in the 11-14 age group, 2% in the 15-18 age group, and 13% in the 19-22 age group. For girls, the numbers stood at 6%, 11%, and 27% respectively.
However, qualitative findings and secondary data indicate that domestic violence has increased significantly since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic and imposition of lockdowns, so these numbers need further interrogation.
Parents and community members widely acknowledging the prevalence of domestic violence, believed that it was a private matter best handled within the family.
Violence is often a sensitive subject—the AEP introduced it only in their fourth year of working with adolescents. Among the biggest challenges was helping them break their own victim-blaming tendencies.
“We teach the adolescents that not getting access to rights is also a kind of violence, because it hinders your progress and prevents you from getting where you rightfully deserve to be,” said Prakash.
The findings suggested that adolescents understood and acted upon the concept of dakhal do (to intervene) and many Taaron ki Toli members started speaking about the instances of violence in their families themselves and raising the issue in their communities during the lockdown, when domestic violence soared.
The Problems With Scale
“Perhaps the most important thing that has changed is that I now know what my rights are and how to ask for them,” said Yadav, who is completing her graduation. “I can tell you what kind of treatment of girls and women is right and what is wrong, and that has really opened my eyes.”
“After completing my education, I want to continue doing social work, because I do not want adolescents of the coming generations to live the kind of life that I have had to live,” said Yadav.
The Breakthrough interventions focus on bringing together stakeholders to chart their own course for the future that they want for themselves, instead of forcing ideas upon them, said Prakash. “As a result of this approach, we have seen young boys start taking household chores as their primary duty too,” he said, “and pointing out to their families that overworking their mothers is a kind of violence.”
However, replicating these measures on a state-wide level requires work at the grassroots on a large scale.
“The biggest challenge for scalability is departmental coordination because the program requires support from the departments of health, education, and women and child development,” said Sohini Bhattacharya, the president of Breakthrough India. “Changing norms at the community level requires consistent time and resource investment, and that means governments have to be seriously committed to ending gender discrimination for it to work,”
“The success of our programmes in UP, Jharkhand, Haryana provides evidence on what works and what does not,” said Bhattacharya. The findings of the study are being used to design gender-sensitisation programmes for classroom education in Punjab.
“By approaching these norms through the schooling system,” said Bhattacharya, “we can address multiple stakeholders at the same time, such as adolescents, their parents, and their communities.”
(Shubhangi Tiwari is a student of political science at Ashoka University and an intern at Article 14.)