4. Adolescent Girls – During Covid
– Increase in Child Labour
– Control of Girls and their Mobility
– Pressure of Child Marriage
– Community Response
– Role of MVF Mobilisers in Stopping Child Marriages
– Continuing Activities with Girls and Education
– Reopening of High Schools in January 2021
– Preparing schools
– Preparing school teachers
– Withdrawing children from work
– Arrangements for Transport
– Enrolment to residential schools
About the Project
Since 2014 MVF has focused its intervention on adolescent girls’ education and against gender violence in 110-gram panchayats covering all children (about 14000 children) in the 11-18 years age group in the 5 mandals of Vikarabad, Shankarpalli, Atmakur, Nuthankal and Maddirala.
In marginalised communities in Telangana, girls find it difficult to reach secondary school; most drop out or are irregular in attendance at schools, after completion of primary education, to assist in domestic work, join the labour force or are forced into early marriage as parents see this as the best way to control them, condemning them to early pregnancy, ill health, and emotional, physical and sexual violence. Exercise of control over girls’ bodily integrity, sexuality and mobility gets manifested through daily practices embedded in values of patriarchy, denying her the opportunities that come through education. At the same time there is an overwhelming desire and aspiration on the part of girls, to complete their secondary education and go beyond.
Girls also face an uphill task in claiming their right to education with shortage of secondary schools within easy distance, creating a systemic barrier to girls’ access to education.
In this context MVF tracks every girl child in the 11-18 years age group in the area through a process of social mobilisation. It gives courage to girls to defy power relations in the family and society, saying “no” to child labour and early marriage. A sustained campaign in the community is conducted to build a groundswell of public opinion and action, involving youth, teachers, local leaders, women’s self-help groups and elected local representatives and government functionaries, dedicated to supporting the girls in their efforts to pursue education. This results in a change in social norms around girls’ education and gender equality.
- The overall strategy is to bring about change in social norms in favour of girls’ education and gender equality and against gender violence. To do so MVF adopts an area-based approach of tracking all children in the 11-18 years age group and ensure that there is universalization of education up to 18 years. Every child is tracked, followed up and retained in all 74 high schools, 7 KGBVs, 3 model schools and 19 Junior colleges in the area to continue education up to 18 years of age.
- MVF enables voices of girls’ being heard through gender committees in schools and the girls’ committees in villages. The entire community, local institutions such as the gram panchayats, women’s’ groups is contacted through a process of social mobilization to support girls’ in bringing about transformation in their lives. Boys and local youth clubs are effective participants in changing social norms.
- There is also an active engagement with the system and its functionaries at all levels which include Anganwadi centres, schools, hostels, residential schools as well as the departments of labour, police, child welfare, education and so on.
Impact of the Program
Some of the perceptible changes in social norms towards gender equality and girls’ education are as follows:
- Within the family some boys who resisted the idea of sharing domestic work with their siblings and asked why must I work? What are sisters/girls for? had changed with boys sharing domestic work along with their sisters.
- The arguments of parents such as ‘safety of girls’, distance to school, pressure of marriage, or asking the girl to discontinue education and opt for ‘tailoring courses’ were replaced by new questions of ‘where is my daughter going to study?’ ‘Whether she would get a seat in the hostel? etc. There was no pressure on the girl to get married or a debate on ‘Why education?’
Voices of Girls
- There has also been a greater mobility of adolescent girls within the village, neighbourhood and public spaces. They have begun to visit friends’ houses cutting across caste barriers and even their male classmates to share textbooks, homework and notes.
- Girls are able to engage with their parents to support their aspirations for higher education and against child marriage, negotiate with boys to stop them from harassing them sexually, talk to gram panchayats about their grievances and speak fearlessly to the police department taking up specific issues of violence and sexual abuse.
- In a way girls are emerging as leaders participating in ‘Ika Chaalu’ conferences district wise and the meetings at the gram panchayat and mandal level. There is a tacit approval for seeing girls as equals and small practices of gender equality in family, public spaces and schools were beginning to be actualized.
- Even among the community or members of local institutions such as gram panchayats, SMCs or CRPF, discussion on adolescence, sexuality falling in love etc was now open and without inhibition. A new culture and beginning were slowly emerging in these societies that earlier did not have vocabulary to discuss sexuality of adolescent children.
- The cases of elopement have drastically reduced. Community have become more understanding and have not stigmatised girls or forced her to marry the man who either abducted her or with whom she eloped.
- Some of the members of SMC, Sarpanch, women in SHGs actively support the changes that are happening in society towards girl’s education and their equality.
- School teachers are more sensitive, listen to girls and their problems and corrected practices of gender discrimination in the schools by letting girls and boys to play together and participate in co-curricular activities.
- Gender Committees with boys and girls in every school encourage girls to speak up.
- Schools too that hitherto punished such children, rusticated them for wrong behaviour were persuaded to be more understanding and appreciate the specific nature of adolescence and their growth and development. Education and not marriage have become a solution.
Adolescent Girls- During Covid
How sustainable were the efforts made by MVF in building a social norm towards gender equality? How much of changes in the attitudes and social norms retained after the lockdown? Would the self-conscious actions of the community, women’s groups, gram panchayats, school management committees and several partners among the functionaries all come to a nought due to the pandemic? Would there be a bounce back in the patriarchal values and consequent structural inequities thwarting the freedom and mobility attained by girls through their agency due to lockdown?
In a review with MVF staff on April 29th there was a discussion on whether all these gains that were made were irreversible? The staff stated that:
‘These changes cannot be reversed. They are a result of a sustained campaign, constantly growing support of parents, neighbourhood, families, schools and expansion of partners who are convinced that girls have to be in education and that gender violence is unacceptable. This acquires a momentum ‘en masse`, and no longer remains a family private matter but an issue for the village as a whole.’
Increase in Child Labour
However, this did not last long. After two months with no work, no wages, no livelihood and dwindling reserves of food and cash the situation worsened. Their precarity and vulnerability dawned on them with scarcity and hunger, insecurity and anxiety. Would we ever find work? How will we manage depending only on the scarce supplies of food rations from the government? At the same time with schools closed, both boys and girls were forced to work and earn wages. This situation continued until November 2020. At times older girls took up NREGA works, proxying for their mothers. Older boys joined the labour market as headload carriers, causal labour and even on construction sites. Most such children were school going, unused to physical labour and found it difficult to cope with harsh sunlight, aches and pains.
Control over Girls and their Mobility
Parents started to control the movement of their daughters while their sons were allowed to meet friends or even go for a swim. Girls complained that they were overburdened with domestic chores. Their anxiety grew with no access to washing soaps, toiletries, sanitary pads.
Children began quarrelling with each other, vying for access to television, cell phone, in the absence of an alternative leading to frequent tiffs.
Pressure of Child Marriage
There is pressure on girls to get them married. These were the very same parents who were full of pride that their daughters were performing well in their studies and even encouraged their pursuit of higher education. With uncertainty about reopening of schools, and stray incidents of girls’ elopement or just fear of them being sexually abused, parents of adolescent girls have fixed marriages of their daughters. They also took advantage of restrictions imposed by the lockdown and so there were limited guests and little expenses. The weddings took place in stealth.
There is resistance to arrangement of such marriages by the girls. Members of KBS (girls’ committees) made phone calls to the MVF mobilisers, Childline, gram panchayats and the support groups to stop marriages.
Even the members in the community were agonized that school children were getting back to work. Earlier they took such pride in making their villages free of child labor and rescuing girls from child marriage, violence and abuse. They are unable to insist on protecting girls as they find no alternative to school, or even support from government to protect food security and well-being of children.
Role of MVF mobilisers in stopping child marriage
MVF mobilisers also put in special efforts to spread the message that child marriage was a criminal act. They contacted local leaders, women’s groups and the gram panchayat and sought their intervention. They reiterated that the lockdown made girls vulnerable to child labour, marriage and abuse of all forms and it was their responsibility to protect all girls. The gram panchayats announced through ‘dappu’ and public announcements, pamphlets and social media platforms to communicate to parents and community not to exploit girls. The issue of adolescent girls was also an important point on the agenda of their periodical meetings:
Continuing Activities with Girls and Education
School going children agonised over closure of schools and this also meant not having access to mid-day meals. They were listless having nothing to look forward to. There was no routine of packing the school bag and lunch box, doing homework, meeting with friends, playing pranks, attending classes, (dis)obeying teachers etc. Education had become so unpredictable. Older children, especially girls who aspired for higher education were at a loss. They reminisced over their struggles to reach up to secondary school level defying all kinds of discrimination.
MVF organizers continuously kept in touch with children, disregarding the lockdown. The restriction of public movement did not hinder them from reaching the children. Where it was not possible for them to physically contact the children, they established telephonic communication through their mobile phones. They created WhatsApp groups for the purpose. Where children had no access to smartphones at home, they used their friends’/ neighbour’s phones. Virtual meetings helped the organizers update the MVF mobilisers on developments in the field.
To engage children MVF mobilisers from Shankarpally promoted reading and encouraged children to borrow library books. WhatsApp groups were created in Atmakur Mandal to enable online teaching with available human resources, viz. teachers. Children were also asked to watch digital videos being telecast by the State government on specified TV channels.
MVF mobilisers also attempted to reach children and engage them with the help of local teachers. The teachers posted question papers (mostly objective/multiple choice questions) that the children could answer. Though this did not have the same effect as conventional teaching, children at least had access to education. This also helped prevent them from getting absorbed into the labour force. In addition, they gathered information from children on the availability of cell phones that they could access for virtual (Zoom) meetings. In many colleges’ government is conducting classes through satellite channels. MVF mobilisers are following up with children who have no access to online classes. Arrangements were made to pair children without smart phone with a child who had one. Likewise, some had TVs and some did not. Some did not have electricity or recharging facility. They were all linked to one another and resources were shared.
High schools reopened in January 2021 and closed down in March 2021-Some hope!
Government reopened schools in January 2021 for children in classes 9 and 10 to those who chose to attend, and continue with online classes to those who preferred to stay at home.
MVF held meetings with the gram panchayats, CRPF members and SMCs to contribute to the cleaning of schools and readying it for children. They raised funds to take up repairs of toilets, provide water facilities and clean up the school premises. Some gram panchayats made an official announcement through the ’dandora’ to send all children to schools and even decorated the school to welcome children and school teachers.
Preparing school teachers
MVF mobilisers also contacted school teachers and gave them confidence to come regularly. Some teachers joined in the cleaning campaign and even told children to start coming to school. They expressed that they too were missing school and children.
Withdrawing children from work
Girls were earning Rs.300/- a day as it was sowing season. Would their mothers agree to send them? Did they not depend on this income for running the family? On contacting the parents and talking to them they too looked forward to schools reopening. Some of them got children clean dresses. Work clothes were just packed up. Radhika’s parents bought goats to keep their daughter engaged when schools closed down during lock down. Her family got so used to her taking care of goats to graze. It required some persuasion by the gram panchayat members for her parents to sell away the goats and send her back to school. It seems it was far more difficult to get boys back to school as they were bound by a long-term contract with their employers. It was also difficult for children who were studying in private schools as they had to pay arrears of school fees and also for the private bus transportation.
Families also made arrangements to shift older children studying in classes 9 and 10 to the towns to stay with the relatives who took rice in return for this facility.
Arrangements for Transport
Going to high schools which were 5-6 kilometers away was not easy. Girls walked long distances and so parents bought cycles for girls. One of the girls worked for two days, earned enough to get her bicycle repaired to go to school. Auto rickshaw drivers charged heavily to transport children to school. The bus service to the villages that was withdrawn due to COVID had to be restored as in the case of Janawada village and many other villages. Petitions were made to the bus depots and slowly bus after bus, in village after village started plying during school hours. Thus, a new mood and a new beginning!
In a week time 75% of all children started to come to school. This was so unexpected, as during lockdown 90% of all children were working and lost the habit of going to school.
Enrolment to residential schools
Such an effort was also made to get children go back to KGBV and residential schools. There were a new set of problems here. In the Model Schools, teachers who were on a contract basis were not paid salaries during lockdown and so did not come back to work. This led to an acute shortage of teachers. This was reported in the local newspapers and children also wrote letters to the higher ups. This angered the school headmaster and the District Education Officer who accused MVF mobilisers for escalating the issue. In some KGBV’s due to long disuse there was no water and so children dropped out to join a vocational course. Since the social welfare hostels were not reopened, children who were enrolled in them were allowed to join local schools.
Reports and Notes
Gender Equality and Adolescent Girls’ Education Annual Program Report – 2020
Gender Equality and Adolescent Girls’ Education Program Report Jan – June. 2020
Gender Equality and Adolescent Girls’ Education Program Report July – Dec. 2020
Gender Equality and Adolescent Girls’ Education Annual Program Report – 2016
Gender Equality and Adolescent Girls’ Education Program Report Jan – June. 2016
Gender Equality and Adolescent Girls’ Education Program Report July – Dec. 2016
Donor: Stichting Charity Fund Rijsholt’