By Priti Prabhughate and Saniya Pawar
Vulnerability during the age of adolescence (between 10 to 19 years), can lead to life-long disadvantages for young boys and girls. Due to debilitating gender norms however, girls are especially susceptible, and events such as child marriage or unplanned pregnancy occurring during this age can have catastrophic implications for their future.
It has been estimated that India loses USD 56 billion a year in potential earnings because of adolescent pregnancy, higher secondary school dropout rates, and joblessness among young women.
When a girl enters adolescence, she encounters a host of barriers that threaten a safe and stable transition into adulthood. By the time she reaches secondary school age, she is often viewed as a burden, or an asset for work, childbearing, or sex. Her household may not perceive the value of investing in her development, and she may be required to discontinue her education or not pursue livelihood opportunities so that she can get married.
If she tries to challenge the decisions being taken for her or resist gendered social expectations, she usually faces negative consequences. If she chooses to express agency by wanting to continue her education, delay marriage, choose her own partner, gain financial independence, or voice opinions freely, she may be punished by her family and community.
Such ‘punishment’ may range from being ridiculed or stigmatised to forced withdrawal from school, forced marriage, seclusion within the home, and even life-threatening sanctions in the form of beatings, physical abuse, rape or other forms of violence.
Such adverse consequences against challenges to the status quo are known as ‘backlash’, and they help preserve gender inequity within a patriarchal society.
Despite the increased focus and investment in adolescent programming, evidence on backlash against girls’ expressions of agency is sparse. While the experience of backlash is common, there have been few attempts at systematically understanding its drivers, forms, and mitigating factors.
Without a good understanding of the manifestations of such unintended adverse consequences, it is difficult for programmes aimed at empowering girls to anticipate and mitigate likely risks they face when they express agency in their families and communities.
To bridge this gap, Dasra undertook an exploratory study involving 73 adolescent- and youth-focused nonprofit organisations. The aim was to understand in detail the nature and extent of backlash experienced by girls exhibiting agency, as well as the backlash faced by nonprofit organisations themselves while implementing programmes aimed at advancing girls’ empowerment.
Findings from this study suggest that as many as 85 percent of responding organisations were familiar with at least one incident of backlash against girls who displayed agency or defied traditional gender norms.
In addition to the experiences of backlash against girls who express agency, participating nonprofits also reported instances of backlash faced by boys in the form of ridicule, when they expressed gender-egalitarian attitudes or behaviours that defied traditional norms, such as performing household chores.
Findings also indicated that organisations themselves faced backlash from the community for their programmes that challenged to prevailing social norms.
We cannot address the effects of backlash unless we acknowledge them openly and systematically. Recognising that even well-intentioned programmes may have unintended consequences that do not ultimately empower girls but reinforce their lack of power, is the first step.
The pervasiveness of backlash highlighted by this study calls for more deliberate action in understanding and implementing strategies that can help address it.
Based on their experiences of encountering backlash, several responding organisations described strategies that they used to prevent or mitigate it. This largely involved sensitising and building trust with the people who are key in making or influencing decisions affecting the lives of adolescent girls.
Intuitively, it follows that empowerment outcomes can only be fully met when the adolescent girl participating in the programme has an enabling environment. Keeping this in mind, examples of strategies used by organisations to achieve this include:
Funders can play a role in supporting normative change by investing in organisational efforts aimed at creating an enabling environment for adolescents to thrive in.
To know more about backlash, and what organisations can do to mitigate it, read the full report here.
About the authors:
Priti Prabhughate: Priti leads the Knowledge Creation and Dissemination team at Dasra. Prior to joining Dasra, she worked with the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), and the Humsafar Trust where she spearheaded several research studies on issues of gender, gender-based violence, HIV, stigma, and mental health issues of sexual minority communities in India. Priti has a PhD in social work from Jane Addams College of Social Work, the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Saniya Pawar: Saniya works in Dasra’s Knowledge Creation and Dissemination team to produce research that directs philanthropic capital towards India’s most pressing problems. In addition to research, she conducts pre-investment due diligence on nonprofit organisations and supports capacity building for them. Prior to Dasra, she worked as a business analyst in a Dubai-based tech firm, developing market research, and analysis on employment trends in the Middle East. Saniya graduated from IIT Bombay in 2015 with a B.Tech in materials engineering and a minor in humanities and social sciences.