Girl power in the desert

Posted: 18 October 2002

Author: Pamela Bhagat

Dusty, drought-ridden western Rajasthan is the most unlikely of places to encounter girl power. Yet, in the Rajasthan village of Rambagh, a group of five 17-year-old girls are courageously introducing women to contraception, preventing child marriages, educating adolescents about reproductive health and even encouraging parents to educate their daughters. Pamela Bhagat reports.

Sharda, Rashmi, Sumitra, Indira and Radha were part of the first group of girls that attended the 'Balika Shivir' or Girls Camp programme, started in Lunkaransar by the Uttari Rajasthan Milk Union Limited Trust (URMUL) in August 1998.

Meant specifically for illiterate girls between 12 and 18 years, this six-month residential programme was set up with the ambitious goal of getting the girls admitted into Class 4 in the school system. The programme was created to introduce the girls - who had spent a major part of their childhood in housework and the care of younger siblings - to the joys and challenges of education.

Family Planning Education, India© Shehzad Nooran/Still Pictures

Life skills

Predictably, the curriculum included anything but housework. The girls learned the basic skills of reading and arithmetic as well as how to ride a bicycle, play volleyball, understand hygiene and healthcare, and practise conversation and public speaking. They also expanded their horizons by travelling to distant places by bus and train.

The initial resistance from parents and elders was as inevitable as it was understandable. To begin with, it was difficult to retain the girls for the complete duration of the course. But now, four years down the line, the alumni of the camp have become role models for other girls in 114 villages of the Bikaner district. The number of girls who enrol for the programme has increased from 100 to 250. "Compared to their urban counterparts, these girls have advanced life skills, and their approach to learning is enthusiastic and practical," says Ganga, one of the camp organisers.

Of this group of five, four girls are married - but they have refused to leave their maternal homes till they turn 18. Sharda, on the other hand, says she will not marry till she becomes a qualified teacher. And, supporting and encouraging these girls in their decisions is a whole village and converted families.

Teaching teenagers

After completing their six-month course, these girls initially took part in programmes to educate other adolescents about personal hygiene, sexual health, first aid, social evils, and in challenging traditional biases. With guidance from the organisers of 'Balika Shivir', class sessions were informal and involved distributing information to adolescents at the village school on a variety of subjects.

Young girls were taught how to make and use sanitary napkins, while the boys were counselled separately about the importance of responsible sexual behaviour. Such sessions are remarkably significant in the context of rural Rajasthan, where 30 per cent of children below 13 years are married, and 40 per cent of the boys are fathers by the age of 18. The group of five was soon inundated with requests for advice and counselling on both minor and major curiosities and problems.

Assisting mothers

What they had not bargained for, however, were young mothers of the village coming to them for information and guidance on contraception. According to Sharda, girls here are quite familiar with the processes involved in reproduction and childbirth. Often, they are called upon to assist their mothers or other women of the family, and also because the subject is discussed openly by older women.

Sharda herself was eight years old when she helped her mother deliver her youngest brother - on a freshly raked bed of sand. Today, she knows better. At least one of her group accompanies the village TBA (Traditional Birth Attendant) during deliveries to ensure sterilised equipment and hygienic conditions.

When Nirmala - Sharda's sister - lost her sixth child during delivery and almost died herself because of post-partum bleeding, the girls realised the need for disseminating information on healthy food habits and the special requirements of pregnant and lactating mothers. They introduced Nirmala to contraception and helped her procure Mala-D - a contraceptive pill - from the district Primary Health Centre. A beaming Nirmala proudly claims that after having delivered a child every year of her first six years of marriage, it is now three years since she was pregnant.

Family planning

The group now regularly advises and encourages young women to space and plan their pregnancies - by listing health benefits and limited family resources as attractive reasons. According to Sharda, women here are inclined towards using birth control pills which are available at the clinic. They find it easier and they prefer not to involve their husbands.

"Nirodh (condoms) is also available but we don't quite know what to tell the men about it," says Radha, blushing as the others remind her of her own impending departure to the marital home. Undeterred, she volunteers, "I will continue to inform and counsel people in my husband's village, and will begin with my mother-in-law who has recently delivered her eighth child. I do not want to be pregnant for at least two years because my husband is just 20 years old."

After having established their credibility with their peer group, the group of five now wants to influence the elders. "We want them to delay the marriages of their children, not to spend beyond their means on weddings and most importantly, to encourage their daughters to think and speak for themselves in all situations."

What began as a response to the concern of a few village elders - about the insignificant number of girls in school - has now turned into a local social movement. Sharda and her companions inspire hope and confidence in the village.

This article was reproduced with kind permission by the Women's Feature Service (October 14, 2002).