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Voices of Adolescent Girls

The long drawn-out Covid-19 lockdown was lifted in Telangana in the beginning of August 2021. Schools and colleges reopened and the adolescent girls in the Ika Chaalu – Enough is Enough project were finally able to resume their education and project activities could restart. Here are some snippets from what the girls had to say about their experiences of lockdown and its aftermath when a member of the Ika Chaalu team visited the project site in Suryapet on 19 October 2021.

The adolescent girls expressed their despair but at the same time their conversations were so full of hope as well. As has been reported from various other locations, here, too, the girls narrated the enormous difficulties they faced during the lockdown. Lalita, a student of Class 8 said that :

“there was no work, no cash at home, no food reserves and tensions began to brew. Everyone in my family - father, mother, siblings - were irritable over practically everything.”

Girls and boys who should have been in school were pushed into more and more exploitative conditions of work and child labour, drudgery, loss of health and anxiety. Many girls were forced into child marriage and subjected to abuse and violence. Sweta, studying in class 10 said:

“there was no money at home. I joined my mother to work on a chilli farm and later on cotton farms. We together earned Rs. 300-500 a day. It was very tiring. Even when I used to go to school, I would sometimes work during the holidays to earn some pocket money to buy new clothes or text books. That was different. Now I just cannot say no to work. It goes on and on like this day in and day out. I have body aches and pains and cannot even complain”.

To compound their problems came the announcement of online classes which no child wanted to miss. Gender discrimination and precarity rebounded with girls finding it difficult to access and use mobile phones to go online. It was so much easier for their brothers to borrow the phone from their father to catch up with the online lessons. Some parents even invested in buying mobile phones for their children, especially boys. Girls could hardly get their hands on one. Krupa, who is in her first year of undergraduate studies had this to say:

“My older brother monitored every call I made. I once used the mobile to conduct a social survey for which I got paid. He became suspicious, questioned me for using the phone, for making so many calls and accused me of talking to male friends. I tried telling him about the survey. He was so wild that I was answering back that he beat me very badly and locked me up in the room all night. My father was away and mother who was very ill had no strength to protect me from him. In my case the mobile phone only aggravated gender discrimination rather than help me.”

Many a girl worked overtime to buy a mobile phone for herself. Indeed, they carried their phones along with them to work and strained themselves to keep abreast of online classes while at work. At times they took screenshots of their class to reassure their family that they were using the phone for education. They just did not want to miss classes and feared that they would end up getting married at any hint of discontinuing education.

Girls who were part of the Kishore Balika Sanghams (KBS) or Adolescent Girls’ Committees and had been exposed to gender issues and the struggle against patriarchy did not give in to pressures of marriage from the family. They said that participating in KBS meetings had helped them to understand gender violence and stand their ground during the lockdown. They resorted to calling the MVF field mobilisers or Helpline 1098 to rescue them or their friends from marriage (see blog on resisting marriage).

The State has an obligation to protect girls from child labour and child marriage and to provide resources to local bodies to help them cope with the structural pressures of inequality and hunger and provision of shelter. The government could have supplied worksheets, text books, study materials and encouraged children to keep in touch with the world of books and knowledge. They could have given confidence to girls that the closure of schools was only temporary and that they need not agonise over their loss of education. They could have warned the community of dire action should they employ children. They could have parked resources with the gram panchayats should they need to rescue girls and make arrangements to rehabilitate them. Sadly, children were just not on the radar of the system and no such actions were taken.

When asked what they wanted the most, the girls uniformly responded by saying that they wanted to be trusted. Sindhu said:

“I want my family to trust me. When I return home late from college, I get very tense. Once when I got late as I had a special class and missed my bus that evening my entire family - elder sister, mother and father - asked me a barrage of questions insinuating loose behaviour. They did not want to hear me at all. I was so hurt.”

Anuja had a similar complaint:

“Every time I go out, they think I am going to meet my boyfriend and threaten to get me married’.

They were also clear that they were aware that girls and boys would have to work together in this effort. The Gender Committees in schools have helped to win over boys and they were keen for this activity to restart now that schools have reopened. As the discussion on gender committees was going on Jyoti asked a very pertinent question:

“When we are all taught the history of World War I and World War II, why can’t they include the history of patriarchy and rights of girls in our text books? This will help in changing all of us.”

Girls also expressed that they would like to live without fear. Manga said:

“How long do we live with fear and loss of freedom?”

Krupa told the group about her very unusual mother:

“My friends like coming to my house because my mother lets us play and makes us feel comfortable. Sometimes she joins us in our games, singing and dancing with us. She is often criticised in the neighbourhood for this. It does not affect her. She says, we should be free to do what we want, without fear. And at the same time be responsible, she adds. I wish all mothers were like my mother.”

Lavanya elaborated with a very important point about changing social norms in favour of girls:

“There will be change if the entire village is in support of our freedom, mobility and education. We have to work hard to change mindsets. We girls will have to raise our voices to educate and mobilise people in our support.”

All of them agreed that they have to lead the movement for change. They have to know more, be brave and strong. The girls have already taken some steps in this direction by demanding a dedicated space from the Gram Panchayats and negotiating viable accommodation where they can hold their meetings and plan their activities (see blog on Panchayats). This is already opening the way for adolescent girls articulating other demands and getting their voices heard on other matters that concern them. They hope to lead a movement for gender equality, freedom and justice for girls.

Realising equal rights and ensuring completion of secondary education for adolescent girls are the main objectives of the Ika Chaalu – Enough is Enough project. Achieving this requires a change in social norms in the community, in institutions and among the functionaries of the State. Motivating, informing and mobilizing members of Gram Panchayats (elected local government) to become defenders of girls’ rights is one of the strategies followed by the project. In this blog we will look at some examples from the field of the positive changes that are possible when Gram Panchayats come on board and become allies instead of adversaries.

A space of their own

In the beginning of August 2021 the lockdown was lifted and girls started to meet through the Kishor Balika Sanghams (KBS) or Adolescent Girls’ Committees. They talked about the lockdown, the pressures put on them to get back to work and to get married, parental fears about elopement and problems with online classes. They shared their yearning to get back to school and continue with their education, no matter what. Almost the first issue they decided to take up was to request the Gram Panchayats to give them a space where they could meet and have the KBS meetings. A space that they could call their own.

In Ravulapalli, the youth association which consists mainly of boys (almost as though girls are not to be considered as ‘youth’) asked the girls to vacate the room in their club and carry out their activities elsewhere. The girls argued that if boys’ youth clubs had a space exclusively for themselves, then they too must claim their space. This was the first demand from the girls of KBS groups. In village after village they started to meet the Sarpanches (elected heads of Gram Panchayats) and impressed upon them what they would do if a room was available. For example, KBS members from Dontanpally, Ponnagutta Thanda and Gopularam Panchayats mentioned that they needed a separate space to conduct meetings, start a library and reading room, and for the planning of midday meals for all children and the distribution of KCR (hygiene) kits. It also meant a space where they could sit to plan for the hoisting of the national flag on August 15th - Independence Day.

Together with the Gram Panchayats, girls began to look for accommodation in their villages. The Sarpanches of Dontanpally and Ponnagutta Thanda permitted them to use the Gram Panchayat building and a DWCRA (Development for Women in Rural Areas) building respectively. The latter Sarpanch also got the entire building cleaned. The Sarpanch of Gopularam provided them with accommodation in a building being used by a local youth association. The Sarpanch of Proddatur gave the KBS some place in the Gram Panchayat office and later provided them with a room in the local school. In Parveda, Dhobipet, Laxmareddyguda and Alamkhanguda they were provided with a room in the health sub-centre, the Gram Panchayat office, the local school, and a DWCRA building respectively. The Sarpanch of Madanpalli gave KBS members some room in the Panchayat office for their meetings and they were later relocated to the Anganwadi Centre (childcare centre). The Sarpanch of Thummala Penpahad identified a place for setting up a Centre and library facilities for KBS members. He also promised Rs 10,000 for the purchase of library books. During a visit by a member of the Ika Chaalu team on 19th October, he spoke with a lot of pride about the three KBS’ - Mother Theresa, PV Sindhu and Poorna Malavath - in his Panchayat and assured all of them that he would take action to stop child marriages. The Sarpanch of Patha Suryapet arranged for a room and library facilities and permitted the girls to borrow the daily newspaper that he subscribes to at home, while the Sarpanch of Koti Nayak Thanda provided KBS members with a room for their meetings and also counseled some youth after the members complained that they were harassing girls. In Siddulur the Sarpanch handed over an old Anganwadi Centre building to them after getting it cleaned. In Mylardevarampally, the Sarpanch responded to a petition by KBS members and gave them some room in the Anganwadi Centre and later shifted them to a bigger hall, which doubles as a library.

Girls’ participation in Gram Panchayat meetings

With the renewed confidence that the girls gained from this success, they next sought to be invited to the Gram Panchayat meetings. The Sarpanches of Parveda and Dhobipet have started inviting two girls each by rotation to attend Gram Panchayat review meetings and Grama Sabhas (village general body meetings). Indeed, KBS members and MVF mobilisers from these two Panchayats have been made members of the Gram Panchayat WhatsApp groups and they receive updates on all developments in these Panchayats.

Significantly, several sarpanches have started to participate in the KBS meetings and listen to the woes and aspirations of the girls. The Sarpanches of Madanpally and Kamareddyguda attended a KBS meeting and took not of the fact that buses were not plying to their villages, forcing girls to take the auto rickshaw to school which they could ill afford. They promised to look into the issue. Likewise, the Sarpanch of Thummala Penpahad and Madanapali has not only been inviting KBS members to meetings of Gram Panchayat and Gram Sabhas but has started to attend the meetings of KBS’ as well. When he heard thatShailaja had dropped out of school after being sexually harassed by local youth on her way to college, he responded immediately by warning the youth and motivated the girl to resume her education. The Mandal Parishad President of Vikaraba – a women - is very active and highly supportive of girl child issues. She attended KBS meetings in 4 villages of the Mandal and raised the issues raised by girls about sanitary napkins, lack toilets in schools and non-availability of bus facilities at the Mandal level meeting.

Girls taking up a diversity of issues

The girls have started bringing up a diversity of issues to be resolved by the Gram Panchayats. In Atmakur (S) Mandal they complained to the Gram Panchayat that they had no teacher for English. They made such a forceful case that the Sarpanch negotiated with the District Education Officer and got a teacher shifted to their school. The triumph of the girls was evident when they narrated this incident. Similarly, the driver of the RTC bus that passes through Kotalaguda didn’t wait long enough for school and college-going children from the village to board the bus and also blew the horn just once to indicate that the bus had arrived. A number of children were missing the bus as a result. The KBS brought this matter to the notice of the Sarpanch, who spoke to the driver and set the situation right. The driver now waits for the children to board the bus and leaves only after they have done so. The Sarpanch of Athvelly got some open wells covered, which posed a threat to small children, in response to a petition by the KBS.

Impact on girls

The convincing manner in which the girls engaged with members of local bodies, put forth their demands for exclusive space and negotiated viable alternate accommodation in the village is indicative of the determination and courage they have gained in the Ika Chaalu project. They have gained this strength through their participation in the KBS meetings and the Ika Chaalu conferences. They have learnt from each other as well. Most of them have emerged triumphant in claiming space for themselves in public centers such as the Gram Panchayats, Anganwadi centers and school. In fact, this has not been just some routine activity, but one which has filled them with energy and given the groups legitimacy and strength. Demanding space in the village had a symbolic value at several levels. It proves that they are visible and individuals in their own right, they are strong enough to take up issues for collective action, they are courageous and prepared to fight for justice, and are mature enough to be taken seriously. Girls who were hesitant and shy earlier and did not go out of their homes are now engaging with the Gram Panchayats. Witnessing the impact of their voices on the Gram Panchayats has filled them with pride, self-belief, and self-confidence.

Even a symbolic activity like hoisting the flag on Independence Day has had a profound impact on the girls. Since the timing of the petitions for space coincided with Independence Day celebrations, the girls quickly moved to planning for taking part in the ceremonies. There was a flurry of activity in which they spoke to the Gram Panchayats and youth associations and grabbed the leadership to hoist the flag in the middle of the village. This was significant as it made them feel that they were equal citizens with rights as guaranteed by the Constitution of India and there was no stopping them!

The experience of the Ika Chaalu project has demonstrated that the process of budling social norms towards gender equality and adolescent girls’ education is challenging and slow but it can be done, as witnessed by the following examples from the field:

*The convention for adolescent girls organized by the Ika Chaalu project on 1 December, 2019, took place in Hyderabad just a few days after the brutal rape and murder of Priyanka Reddy. However, instead of despair, this event had an atmosphere of firm resolve and determination. The girls were angry but knew that anger would not change things. They passionately and rationally voiced their claims for freedom from violence and demanded their right to equality. One such voice was of a girl from Hyderabad who said that the project had given her the encouragement to confront, discuss and change her situation. Her message was clear and strong: “how can parents be brave when incidents like this happen. The first action should be ours. We need to oppose this; we need to raise our voices”. A constant refrain of the meeting was that it was wrong that girls should end up paying the price for violence perpetrated by boys.

*As a result of the discussion in the Adolescent Girls’ Committees, girls have started to approach Gram Panchayat’s and claim a space where they can conduct meetings, have a library and reading room, a centre for the distribution of hygiene kits, and plan for events such as hoisting the flag for Independence Day. Many Gram Panchayat’s have obliged and found a conducive and dedicated space where the girls can meet. Some have gone further with the support they have started offering to adolescent girls. A few have taken the unprecedented step of allowing girls to sit in rotation in the Panchayat meetings.

*The lockdown proved to be a difficult time for adolescent girls. With schools closing and families losing their livelihood and incomes, many parents started arranging marriages for their daughters in stealth. However, the girls resisted this, and members of the Girls’ Committees alerted the MV Foundation field mobilisers, who in turn took action. For example, a field mobiliser in Nutankal received a call from a member of the Girls’ Committee that a girl from Yedavelli was due to be married. She contacted the Tehsildar and the Child Development Project Officer (CDPO) and along with the Anganwadi Worker and Child Rights Protection Forum member, the officials counseled the girl and her parents and prevented the marriage.

* During the lockdown, MVF mobiliser Dhanamma got to know from members of the Girls’ Committee that Uma’s parents were planning on getting her married in the second week of May 2021 and that the family were going to meet the priest to fix an auspicious date and time for the wedding. Dhanamma contacted the Sarpanch, who in turn called the priest and warned him against fixing a date and solemnizing the marriage. When the girls’ parents arrived in the priest’s house, he asked them to wait. He immediately called Dhanamma, who called Childline for help. In an hours’ time all the relevant functionaries arrived in the priest’s house. They warned the parents against printing invitation cards or going ahead with the wedding. The Supervisor of the Anganwadi (employed by the department of Women and Child Welfare and officially in charge of the well-being of adolescent girls in her village) was instructed to visit Uma’s home every other day to see if she was safe and has been told that she will be held accountable should Uma get married.

These examples are testimony to the changes in societal norms regarding adolescent girls thatg have come about as a result of the efforts of the Ika Chaalu project. Girls are now able to exercise agency and demand their rights; parents have stopped forcing girls into early marriage and allow them to follow their dream of getting a secondary education; the functionaries of the system are defending the rights of girls; even traditionally conservative bodies like caste panchayats and priests are coming round to the idea of arguing against early marriage and refusing to solemnising marriages of minors. But this process was not without its challenges.

In the course of its work on child labour and education, the MV Foundation conceptualized and developed innovative strategies for changing social norms around these issues ( The Ika Chaalu project (ongoing since 2014) built on this experience to engage with the social norms that prevent adolescent girls from realizing their right to education and freedom from early marriage, gender discrimination, violence and harassment. While the methodology for changing social norms remained the same, there were certain specificities that had to be resolved in addressing patriarchy.

The process of building social norms around child labour and education had resulted in getting ALL children, including girls, into school till the completion of class 10. However, the continuation in school till completion of secondary education was fraught with gender discrimination and violence on adolescent girls and societal norms of patriarchy came into play in full force. At every step there were biases against girls. Even when the girls had aspirations for higher education, they had to contend with pressures from the family that controlled their time and leisure and restricted their freedom and mobility. Parents feared social stigma and damage to the family’s reputation lest the girl were to fall in love or elope, and even if she were a victim of sexual violence. Girls’ safety was of paramount concern to them. The community too had its own perceptions about the reputation of a girl overstepping her prescribed behaviour. Existing norms about child marriage, sexuality, safety, and the behaviour expected of a girl had to be exposed, challenged and replaced in the Ika Chaalu project. In fact, the gender biases in each girl’s journey to school had to be addressed. Indeed, many more nuances were to be introduced to create an atmosphere in support of girls’ education and gender equality in the family, in schools and other institutions and in public spaces. This made the work with adolescent girls more complex.

Deeper engagement with the family

MVF’s interventions had to start at a micro level with each family, beginning with addressing the family division of labour, access to food and other consumption, leisure, play and friendships. A girls’ claim for equal space in the family was contentious; it disturbed the equations among family members and had to be resolved.

Gradually, norms began to shift. Within the family, new practices of a relationship between father and daughter began to emerge, with girls talking to their fathers about their aspiration for higher education and imploring them not to get them married till they felt ready for it. Norm changes also allowed for the family giving equal opportunity to their daughters and supporting her higher education, even when it involved travelling long distances. It also enabled girls to leave home and live in hostels in their pursuit of education. Parents gained strength to contend with insinuations from the community and neighbours who constantly nudged them with proposals of eligible bachelors for their daughters.

The privileges the brothers enjoyed in a family vis a vis their sisters also changed in support of her education. They too had to share in the domestic chores and take part in work that was seen as a gendered domain. The adjustments in time and space meant a transformation in attitudes of masculinity towards gender equality. From a position where girls ate the left-over food, boys now began to share their meals, having become aware of gender discrimination and its consequences for girls. Indeed, this had the added benefit of encouraging boys to support their mothers against domestic violence perpetuated by their fathers, who were often also alcoholics.

Early marriage

The issue of stopping early marriage was also a contentious one. A new set of groups had to be won over to establish a social norm. The MVF mobilisers had to contend with powerful caste panchayats which reinforced and justified patriarchal norms. Defying such powerful caste elders, who often mediated on issues of marriage, was not easy. Even priests who solemnised and blessed marriages were instrumental in perpetuating discrimination against girls. They were significant barriers to adolescent girl’s education and had to be won over so they would be in favour of girls and against gender discrimination. This meant contending with entrenched traditional forces that had a moral presence in the lives of the people. This had not been the case in the earlier campaigns about child labour and education.

The role of traditional institutions could be contested only when more secular ones such as gram panchayats, schools and the law enforcement agencies were invoked to establish new values of gender equality and education of adolescent girls. But, in the beginning, even the functionaries of the system such as schoolteachers and the police were not ready to accept the idea of girls’ mobility and they even questioned some parents for giving so much liberty to their daughters. After repeated engagement with secular institutions, as well as with caste panchayats and religious leaders, and after seeking their support to be part of the solution and not the problem, they have also changed their stance. They, too, have been sensitised to take action in support of gender equality and girls’ education.

With every instance of early marriage, positions in the community became polarised, with some individuals, family members and neighbours arguing for a girl to be married and others putting forth their views about girls’ education and gender equality, arguing that early marriage was harmful. Unlike the issue of child labour which was specific to the particular families that either employed children or sent children to work, the issue of adolescent girls’ equality and gender discrimination was pervasive, affecting every household in the community, leading to introspection about the unfair treatment meted out to girls and women.

Issues of sexuality and the absence of a vocabulary for open debate

Changing social norms on sexuality required a new vocabulary as such issues were seldom openly debated or discussed. MVF mobilisers enabled the community to be regard instances of girls’ elopement or falling in love as a natural process of adolescence and growing up. Now, these issues are being discussed at the gram panchayat level and girls raise the issue of sexual violence in the Kishore Balika Sanghams (girls’ committees). From a position where sexuality was not a point of discussion at all, clear stands are being taken on the matter in favour of girls. Such dilemmas about personhood and discussions on bodily integrity and autonomy were not explicit in the course of establishing a social norm against child labour and in favour of education.

At first, teachers would not even acknowledge that gender discrimination was an issue in schools and initially resisted the idea of MVF mobilisers advising them on girls’ education. They construed it as a threat to their authority in schools. Due to constant interaction with school teachers, there was a change in their attitude towards adolescent girls. There is no longer policing or surveillance of children lest they ‘fall in love’ or even elope. Friendships between boys and girls are seen as normal. In short, teachers have become more sensitive.

Social Norms and Children’s Agency

There are instances when parents willingly send their adolescent daughters to schools and allow them to study further after they have been convinced by repeated visits from MVF field mobilizers. They gain the courage to take a stand in support of their children as it resonates with what they had always wanted for them.

At the same time there are occasions when it is the girls who gained courage and took the decision to say no to child labour, child marriage and the drudgery of work and to seek an education instead. Such a stand on the part of the girls is often propelled by their participation in the girls’ committees where they experience expressions of peer solidarity. They also get strength when they know that they have persons in the community, among members of gram panchayats, women’s groups and teachers who show concern for them and will support them. They feel empowered when they find that there is a public discussion at bus stops, weddings, and wakes; when they hear conversations about rescuing girls from labour or early marriage. Similarly, girls get the courage to defy existing norms when they see community efforts to trace a girl missing from the neighbourhood, to assess whether she is safe under the protection of her parents or guardians and to help those who are victims of violence.

Ultimately their exercise of agency is based on a ray of hope to escape from forced labour, drudgery and early marriage to freedom and liberty. In turn, it is their innate strength and standing their ground, and not relenting under any pressure, that gives an impetus to the community and members of various forums to go the extra mile in favour of adolescent girls. The girls’ struggle also strengthens the response of public institutions wherein the functionaries of the state are compelled to address urgent and concrete challenges posed by the girls. They can no longer hide behind convenient arguments about structural constraints, tradition, culture or the poverty of the parents but utilise the policies and legal instruments at their disposal to protect children’s rights in a rights-based perspective.

Children’s participation and exercise of agency thus becomes indispensable in bringing about a transformation in their own lives and in building new social norms in the community.

MVF mobilisers and introspection

The role of MVF mobiliser is key to changing social norms. In the case of child labour their stand was strong from the beginning as they themselves came from similar backgrounds. They needed no convincing on the matter. Likewise, they went ahead with mobilising communities for girls’ education. However, when the issue of supporting adolescent girls’ education opened up the debate on patriarchy and gender equality, MVF mobilisers - both male and female - had to contend with their personal practices in the family. The male mobilisers became more and more conscious that there was inequality and were compelled to accept their own limitations and correct them. The female mobilisers too had to assert, and continue to do so, for equality in the family. They had also brought up the issue of gender discrimination in MVF, showing how all pervasive this issue is. This matter had to be addressed and dealt with within the organization and will form the topic of a future blog.