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Challenges in Building Social Norms for Gender Equality and Adolescent Girls’ Education

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.


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