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Written by Lori Martin.

Lori Martin is a BScN nursing student from Canada in her fourth and final year at McMaster University. Lori has been at CRHP for the past three months, completing a global health professional practice/clinical placement in affiliation with her University. She will be returning to Canada for her final clinical placement before becoming a registered nurse. 

Adolescence is a critical transitional stage between childhood and adulthood, a time that requires great attention, guidance, and security. Characterized by often confusing physical and emotional changes, the knowledge, values, and skills attained during this stage greatly impact future well-being. When adolescents “are supported and encouraged by caring adults, along with policies and services attentive to their needs and capabilities, they have the potential to break long-standing cycles of poverty, discrimination and violence.” –UNICEF, 2014

With over 600 million girls of the adolescent age living in developing countries and approximately 111 million in India alone, there is so much potential for this group to facilitate social change in their country. Unfortunately barriers such as gender inequities often inhibit these changes from occurring.

How can these girls make a difference if they don’t have the opportunity to finish school, are forced into young marriages and therefore suffer the health consequences of early childbirth?

Healthy, educated, and empowered adolescent girls are the key to establishing a better and brighter future for their communities. These girls must be provided with the opportunity to reach their full potential. The Comprehensive Rural Health Project (CRHP) runs an Adolescent Girls Program (AGP) to provide rural young girls with the education, confidence, and self-esteem they need to face any difficult circumstances their futures may entail.

AGP provides unmarried adolescent girls, between the ages of 12 and 18, with a safe place to engage with other girls and learn about a variety of topics that they would not otherwise have the opportunity to learn about. Two Project Villages participate in the program at a time. Approximately 40 girls, along with their Village Health Workers, come each Sunday to CRHP for 6 months. Each session consists of a self-defense lesson, 2 nutritionally balanced meals, and interactive, educational sessions. The education that they receive ranges from topics on the environment and health such as nutrition, sanitation, and reproduction to more sensitive social issues such as gender equality, early marriages, and female feticide.

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The program initially covers basic topics such as the environment, sanitation, and nutrition, before moving on to more sensitive topics, such as sexual health and social issues. Input from the girls greatly influences the topics covered, as they are asked to suggest topics that they want to learn more about. The girls learn through a variety of methods to keep them engaged. Self-defense is taught during weekly karate lessons and topics are often covered using songs, skits, and other hands-on activities, giving the opportunity to increase self-esteem and confidence by performing small presentations either with a group or individually.

Many of the topics taught at the Adolescent Girls Program are the only opportunity these girls have to learn about them. Most girls are not taught about menstruation and reproductive health by their parents or in school due to lack of a female teachers, and therefore have no knowledge at all prior to attending this program. In the village schools where these girls attend, topics such as reproductive health, gender equality, and female feticide are not addressed. This program provides the girls with an opportunity to learn about and discuss these sensitive issues.

When asked what they enjoy learning about at the program, the most common responses were the health information and the sensitive topics.

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Why is it so important to invest in adolescent girls?

I sat down with AGP facilitator, Surekha, and Village Health Workers involved with the program to answer this question.

These girls are the future mothers and household managers in their villages. By providing a girl with health knowledge and skills, she has the ability to save herself, her family, and her neighbors from sickness and disease. Not only does investing in adolescent girls provide them with knowledge, but it also helps to build their self-esteem and confidence. With this confidence they will be able to stand up for themselves when it comes to social issues such as dowry and female feticide as well as share this knowledge with other girls in her village.

“Adolescence is a critical time to teach because they are at an age where they are eager to learn and grasp new knowledge.” – Surekha.

How does the Adolescent Girls Program help to impact these girls’ future?

I was able to speak with some of the girls involved with the program to hear first hand from them how they think this program will impact their future. This program provides them with the confidence they need to stand up to their future husbands about social issues such a female feticide. AGP participants report they don’t feel as frightened by domestic violence because they have attained self-defense skills through their karate lessons. The girls are confident they will be able to advocate for gender equality and women’s rights in their communities with the knowledge and confidence gained throughout the program. By educating one girl, many more girls become educated through the sharing of the acquired knowledge.

While investing in adolescent girls is critical, it cannot be done alone. Adolescent boys must be invested in as well in order to create social changes. Young boys must also be taught about the importance gender equality and women’s rights in order to eradicate gender based domestic violence. For this reason CRHP runs an Adolescent Boys Program to educate young boys on topics such as leadership skills, removing gender stereotypes, and the negative effects of domestic violence. Through the education of young girls and boys social change becomes both possible and achievable.

I have had the opportunity to be involved with the Adolescent Girls Program during the past few months I have spent at CRHP and provide health teaching on a variety of topics including health and sanitation, nutrition, physical and mental changes, and reproduction. The girls are eager to learn and engaged throughout every aspect of the program.  They have such a spark and energy to be the voice of change in their communities. These girls are not only gaining health education, they are becoming confident young women who are able to go out into their communities and advocate for social change. As a result of this program girls are finishing school, waiting until the age of 18 to get married, and have the knowledge and confidence to stand up for their rights as a woman. It is inspiring to see how education and confidence can help shape powerful young women that capable of making positive changes in their community.

References

United Nations Foundation. (2012). Girl Up: Uniting Girls to Change the World. Retrieved from http://www.girlup.org/learn/

UNICEF. (2014). Adolescents and Youth. Retrieved from http://www.unicef.org/adolescence/

International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW). (2010). The Issue: Adolescent Girls. Retrieved from http://www.icrw.org/what-we-do/adolescents

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