Is Access To Primary Education Enough To Empower Our Young Girls In India?

Canadian High CommissionEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #EveryGirlInSchool, a campaign by the High Commission of Canada, Nutrition International and Youth Ki Awaaz to advocate for equal opportunities for girls in India. Join the conversation by publishing a story here.

Centuries of entrenched exclusion and prejudice has cheated women out of lives they deserved. A young girl’s social identity—influenced by culture, upbringing and stereotypes decides the way her life takes shape in a world that doesn’t always want her. With the odds stacked against them right from the time they are born, women and girls in our country are still breaking their own glass ceilings to reach somewhere. While some of us are perpetuating unconscious bias, some people in our society are consciously perpetuating prejudices against young girls and women.

A young girl’s social identity—influenced by culture, upbringing and stereotypes decides the way her life takes shape in a world that doesn’t always want her. Image only for representation.

Our society loves to ‘breed’ its young women and girls to fit conveniently into the lives of men and accommodate them and their needs ‘selflessly’. And young girls are seen as liabilities and not assets like the boys. Hence, ‘investing’ in a girl child’s education is not preferred. But my question is, how do we plan to succeed as a ‘young’ nation if we leave behind millions of girls deprived of their basic rights? Where is their Right to Education?

Education is the basic skill one needs to provide for themselves and their families. By denying education to little girls, we deny them fundamental rights along with the right to make informed choices about their health and life. Our country needs to make a greater investment in girls’ education, which, in turn, will make them independent, empowered individuals equipped to advocate their rights and needs.

What Can Education Do For A Young Girl?

Malala Yousafzai got shot to fight for her right to go to school. We all know where she is right now. Education is the only way women and girls in our country can overcome all odds. Educated, empowered women will not only be financially secure and have agency, but they will also challenge unjust laws and fight against harmful beliefs and practices. They will also be in a position to make informed choices about their bodies and lead a healthier life. Educating young girls and women will also boost the economy as it will increase the participation rate of the female labour force, which is abysmal in our country.

We must invest in their potentials just like we do for our boys. For how long are we going to raise girls in a society which is complicit in suffocating their dreams and voice and keeping them confined to a life of dependence and sometimes even abuse? We have no right to take away their chance to lead a better life. All of them deserve a fair chance, and most importantly, all of them deserve to be treated as humans. We must do everything possible to spread awareness about how crucial it is to educate our girls.

As a society, we must all make sure that we send our girls to school to give them a fair chance at shaping their future and living their dreams.

There should be no excuse for you not sending your girls to school. You have no right to destroy a young mind, its dreams, its potential, its possibilities and its future. It is your responsibility to safeguard their rights, their future and ensure they get a basic education. Educate your girls, so that they can be more than ‘daughters’, ‘sisters’, ‘mothers’ and ‘wives’.

There are a plethora of reasons we can enlist for not sending our girls to schools—ranging from lack of resources, transport, bathrooms (reason menstruating girls drop out), safety etc. While the government and independent organisations have been working on these issues in rural as well as urban areas, it’s not just financial constraints that are stopping people. Removing gender bias, stereotypes, and social norms are important too.

In August 2016, I got a chance to conduct a session with young school kids on gender-based stereotypes and how gender-based discrimination works in our society subtly and sometimes blatantly. Now this Delhi-based small private school has students largely belonging to economically weak families, and to my surprise, the parents of these children are happy to pay the small fee for their boys but not girls.

Out of the 70 students present, only 8 were girls, and when I asked a senior teacher about the reason for this disparity, she told me parents usually take their girls out of private schools to enrol them in govt schools. But ‘financial constraint’ like I said is not the only reason—some of these girls are forced out of school so that they can take care of their younger siblings and do household chores while their parents go out for work. This is a reality for many young girls from marginalised communities in urban areas.

In rural areas, we find a different set of issues faced by young girls who are denied education. Lack of transport facilities, bathrooms and safety concerns etc. force parents to take their girls out of school. Many parents also marry their girls at a young age, which confines them to a life of dependency and lack of agency.

With no autonomy over their own bodies, they are forced to carry pregnancies at a very young age and often multiple pregnancies during their marriage—putting their health at risk. This is also the reason for the low infant-maternal mortality rate in our country as these young women never get the education to help them make informed choices and be aware of their sexual, menstrual and reproductive health. And with laws that do not acknowledge the severity of marital rape, I can only imagine how this situation can get worse.

Young women and girls in our country face myriad forms of gender-based discrimination, which only gets worse with different intersections. Hence, it becomes our moral duty to work effectively towards eliminating cultural beliefs and practices that perpetuate this bias. We need to restructure our social attitudes and acknowledge that women and girls, too, have the right to freedom and right to equality no matter what the societal ‘norms’ dictate. For how long do we plan to deprive our girls and women of basic rights such as property, education and in some cases human dignity? We can’t look away every time a little girl’s dreams are being ground to dust. They have every right to a better life and a better future.

I don’t think providing school supplies or meals are enough if these young girls do not get a chance to join the workforce and support their families. They deserve to be independent individuals becoming doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers, artists, writers anything—anything they want to be—as long as they get that chance.

I want to conclude this by reminding everyone that it might be a victory for a handful of people, but we all lose every day when we choose to let down our girls. As a society, we must all make sure that we send our girls to school to give them a fair chance at shaping their future and living their dreams.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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