The stage of adolescence is a vulnerable, turbulent one, especially so for girls in India who face barriers on so many fronts – social, political and economic.
Which makes the decision to call this year’s International Day of the Girl Child “The Power of the Adolescent Girl”, a welcome one. It’s an occasion when we need to seriously examine the various fronts – social, economic and political – on which their empowerment continues to be undermined in India.
India has the largest adolescent population in the world – 25% of them are girls. These girls have the potential to become leaders and effect change but they continue to receive lesser priority compared to boys within the family when it comes to education. 70% per cent of girls between 7- 16 years drop out of school.
Their empowerment is also hindered due to early marriages, early pregnancies, gender-based violence and limited access to reproductive health services. India has the highest number of child brides in the world – an estimated three million a year, which is third of the number of girls who marry as children every year worldwide.
Child brides are especially vulnerable to domestic violence. Studies have shown that sexual violence from husbands is most common among adolescent wives. These are factors that compromise mental health and have even been linked to depression and high suicides according to many studies.
Over the decades there has been an encouraging rise in the number of programs supporting adolescent girls, especially offering home-based and vocational skills to help them earn an income and play a greater role in their communities.
What needs to be beefed up is the availability of programs that offer information and access to public services and educating married adolescent girls on sexual and reproductive health issues. The unmet need for contraception continues to be high – at 21% India reports the highest in the world.
Various studies have shown that this need felt the most among 15-19 year olds from less educated and poorer homes. Clearly there is a desperate need to provide information on, and access to, a variety of contraceptive methods.
On this International Day of the Girl Child, let us think of ways in which we can empower girls to make meaningful choices in all aspects – economic, social, sexual and reproductive – free from bias, force and violence.