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The Heavy Cost Of Defying Gender Norms: The Findings Of This Study Are Disturbing

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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.

Barriers Adolescent Girls Face, And Consequences Of Trying To Overcome Them

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.

Understanding ‘Backlash’

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.

  • Half of all responding organisations described incidents in which a girl was refused permission to participate in outdoor sports for fear of adverse reactions from the community or likely teasing from boys.
  • 60 percent of organisations reported that they were aware of a girl whose parents had denied her permission to continue attending their programmes due to fear of (or as a result of) exercising agency through demanding extra time for studies in lieu of household chores or expressing opinions freely, for example.
  • More than half of the responding organisations were also familiar with girls who faced violence, denial of food, or forced seclusion when they expressed agency through actions such as negotiating career aspirations, accessing livelihood training programmes or refusing to marry against their will.

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.

Indian schoolgirls in uniform working as a group

If a girl chooses to express agency by wanting to continue her education, gain financial independence, or voice opinions freely, she may be punished by her family and community. | Photo courtesy: Charlotte Anderson

Findings also indicated that organisations themselves faced backlash from the community for their programmes that challenged to prevailing social norms.

  • Over 60 percent of organisations implementing programmes aimed at empowering girls–such as building leadership skills, providing sexual and reproductive health information, encouraging completion of education, building livelihood skills or helping delay marriage–reported experiencing backlash.
  • A third of the responding organisations were forced to modify programme content (for instance drop modules on sensitive topics such as sexual health or child marriage) due to negative reactions from community members.
  • More than half of the responding organisations were denied entry into communities or had their field-level programme implementers threatened, verbally abused, and even physically attacked for implementing empowerment programmes.

Preventing And Mitigating Backlash

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.

1. What Organisations Can Do

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:

    • Engaging parents, communities, and government authorities: Implementing organisations often build rapport with some decision-makers in a girl’s life, most commonly her parents. However, our findings suggest that reaching out to the entire range of stakeholders at the family, community, and local government can play an important role in preventing adverse consequences. What’s more, creating supportive networks in communities by involving women’s groups, local elected representatives, or religious leaders has also helped in not only avoiding backlash but also managing it when it occurs.
    • Having champions and positive role models: Several organisations noted that the presence of adolescent and parent champions helps alleviate fears of deviating from social norms, especially in the eyes of parents of girls, as they demonstrated that delaying marriage, achieving higher education or making their own life choices has not hurt their family’s reputation, but instead helped them thrive.
    • Changing perceptions of gender roles: While empowering girls is essential, organisations stressed that developing new notions of masculinity and femininity among men and boys also plays an important role in achieving gender-egalitarian outcomes.
    • Instituting organisational processes: Organisations pointed out that creating strong backlash management strategies from the time of programme inception is critical. Further, processes to anticipate and recognise different forms of backlash when it occurs, in addition to the steps involved in mitigating it must be outlined, and field staff should be trained in implementing them. Having safety protocols for the physical security of programme staff, as well as reporting or documenting such instances was also emphasised by organisations.
2. What Funders Can Do

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.

  • Invest for the long term: It is critical to recognise that changing social norms, especially inter-generational gender norms, is an incremental process. When investing in empowerment efforts, funders must be prepared to invest for the long term in order to see the benefits. This also includes a willingness to learn constantly and adapt, without losing sight of the end outcome which may come several years down the line.
  • Support the pre-implementation phase of empowerment programmes: Funders must realise the importance of investing in initial preparatory phases that precede implementation of empowerment programmes, as it is during this time that organisations lay the foundation to create an enabling environment for adolescents at the family and community level. Further, creating funding structures that are conducive to innovation and course-correction by organisations can supplement their efforts to create sustaining change.

It’s time we realise that the girl effect 1 does not happen in a vacuum. And neither should the work involved in achieving it.

To know more about backlash, and what organisations can do to mitigate it, read the full report here.

This article was originally published on India Development Review.

  1. The girl effect is defined as the unique potential of 600 million adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves and the world.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Find out more about the campaign here.

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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.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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