Sujata Jyotishi is all of 16. But along with 60 other girls from remote areas of her State, she is reclaiming a narrative that has long been suppressed. The girls are going up to the authorities and asking them why they do not have access to books, sanitary napkins, iron supplements and separate bathrooms. They are going around various districts in the State, identifying core local issues. The girls have also released a charter of demands, titled, Ab Meri Baari (It’s my turn now).
The campaign was put together by Mumbai-based Dasra in March 2019, in partnership with the Aangan Trust, Centre for Catalysing Change (C3), Child in Need Institute (CINI) and Quest Alliance in Jharkhand. While the organisations bring their groundwork, network and expertise on board, Dasra raises funds and shares its knowledge and resources with them.
Message in a bus
The campaign is not restricted to Jharkhand alone. On September 21, Dasra launched its Ab Meri Baari bus tour from Gumla district of Jharkhand, which went further to Simdega and Ranchi districts. From here, the bus went to Lucknow and Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh and Karauli and Jaipur in Rajasthan, where the tour concluded on October 4.
At every halt on the route, local girl champions converge to present their charter to the audience in an event attended by government officials and public representatives. The events consist of skits, dance, poetry and music performances by the girls on social issues. The girls have written more than 200 letters to the relevant authorities with demands from their charter.
At the end of the event in Simdega, the girls crowd around the selfie kiosk and face-painting station and happily show their bus to visitors. Emotions run high as the girls are overwhelmed by the crowd’s positive response; many break into tears.
That night, the bus went to Ranchi, where the girls prepared for their biggest event yet. They huddled together in their accommodation, chattering excitedly, many talking to their parents on the phone. The next morning, they arrived at the venue of the Ranchi event that was attended by State government officials.
As a precursor to the bus trip, they conducted a social audit in 63 villages in six districts of Jharkhand, covering health, education, sexual and reproductive health and rights, child safety and nutrition. They identified important service providers and prepared a questionnaire to check the availability and quality of the service in their village, for adolescents.
Social audit results
Of the 63 villages, they found that adolescent-friendly health clinics were not present in 12 and were irregular in 19. In 18 villages, information about non-communicable and communicable diseases was not displayed at community health centres. In case of availability of free books up to Class VIII, the girls found that in 11 instances, books were not available while in 12, they were of poor quality.
In only 25 villages, they found clean and separate toilets for boys and girls, and in just two villages, good quality sanitary napkins were made available. At least 34 villages had no child protection committee while in 14, its functioning was irregular. The charter of their demands was based on these very lacunae.
Kriti (19), who was compering at the Simdega event, said, “Most students in our village get books four to five months after the school session has begun. Many schools have a common toilet for boys and girls, which becomes a big problem for girls during their periods. The girls do not even have access to free sanitary napkins.” Many of the girls end up dropping out.
The girls are acutely aware that they are part of a larger transformation.
The 16-year-old Sujata, who hails from Bijai village of Saraikela district, said menstruation was the biggest issue for girls. “Since girls use cloth, it becomes very inconvenient for them to go to school in those five to seven days and they end up missing school. Besides, girls are ashamed of drying their period clothes in the sun, which leaves them moist. This causes infection, which means they again end up missing school.” As a result, many of the girls are anaemic. “That is why I work with NGO didi ,” she said. “I want to become a teacher.”
Khileshwari Kumari (18) of Damkara in Gumla district said, “I have completely changed as a person since joining the initiative. I had no clue about my own rights before this.”
But why do they believe their turn is now? “That is because this age is very important. We are not children any more. I want all these demands to be met,” said Ms. Kumari, who dreams of becoming a policewoman.
Poor outcomes on literacy, agency
Dasra facilitates collaborations between funders, non-profits, philanthropists, corporations and the government, largely working on urban sanitation and adolescents. The ‘10 to 19: Dasra Adolescents Collaborative’ was started to improve delaying the age of marriage, first pregnancy, completing secondary education, increasing agency and self-efficacy.
In Jharkhand, the outcomes that led to ‘Ab Meri Baari’ were based on the findings of a survey to assess the needs of adolescents related to their education, transition to work, health, entry into sexual and married life, awareness of rights and more.
The survey was conducted in 2018 among boys and girls aged 10-21 years, and 41,394 households were selected.
Literacy outcomes were found to be poor. Barely half of the adolescents aged 10 to 14 years (46-49%) and only 44% married girls between the ages of 15 and 21 years could read a Class II story fluently.
In terms of agency, or the ability to take life decisions, between the ages of 10 and 14, 33.5% of boys believed they will have a say in marriage-related decisions as compared to 23.3% girls. Similarly, between the ages of 15 and 21 years, the figures were 51.1% and 36.7% respectively. In the same age group, 26.5% girls reported that their husband was selected by parents and the girl was not consulted.
(The author was in Jharkhand at the invitation of Dasra)