Creating Peer Leaders for Adolescent Health and Empowerment, Health News, ET HealthWorld

by Mallika Tharakan

In many parts of India, girls are denied the opportunity to actualize their potential. Married early, they begin to have children at ages when they are still too young and unprepared to be mothers. According to NFHS-5 data, in India up to 23% of girls aged 20-24 were married before they were 18. About 6.9% of married girls aged 15-19 gave birth before the age of 21.

With such startling numbers, it’s no wonder that many adolescent girls suffer from poor health and nutrition and limited access to education. Unfortunately, these barriers open up a wide range of disabling gender norms that severely restrict their well-being and development.

The government, on its part, has proactively introduced several health care programs such as the Kishori Shakti Yojana, Balika Samridhi Yojana, Rajiv Gandhi Teen Empowerment Program and Adolescent Sexual Reproductive Health Program. Recognizing the importance of schools and the critical role they play in helping students adopt healthy behaviors throughout life, school-based health promotion activities have been incorporated as part of the Health component. and wellness from the Ayushman Bharat program. The school-based health and wellness program was launched in February 2020.

While these measures are highly commendable, most are service- and rights-based and are hampered by the lack of adolescent voice in planning and implementation. The Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK), launched in 2014, attempted to fill this gap. The key principles of this program are adolescent participation and leadership, equity and inclusion, gender equity and strategic partnerships with other sectors and stakeholders (teachers, caregivers, parents and other members of the family). It introduces community-based interventions through peer educators and builds on collaborations with other government departments and state governments.

However, two key issues must be considered to ensure the success of any intervention with adolescents.

First, adolescents should not be viewed as a homogenous group. Intervention strategies should be designed to take into account geographic and socio-economic factors. Second, there is a need to recognize adolescents as a group that can lead their own response, also in recognition of the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which emphasize the need for participation (of child) to the design of interventions. .

Recognizing the great diversity among adolescents and with the motto of working with the most vulnerable communities, KHPT has also developed a vulnerability framework to help identify the most vulnerable sub-segments within the broader adolescent population on the basis of indicators highlighting their disparities. KHPT has implemented the Sphoorthi program for adolescent girls in one of the most backward pockets of Karnataka, namely Koppal. Sphoorthi is a community-centred model, with a holistic approach that aims to improve the health and well-being of adolescent girls using an empowerment approach. This does not just work with individual girls, as their experience has shown them that it is equally important to pay attention to the contexts in which girls live. Additionally, it is an empowerment-based program that uses a role-modeling approach to create young adolescent leaders who can demonstrate positive attitudes and outlooks and bring about change in their own communities.

When our organization started the Sphoorthi program in Koppal in North Karnataka (in 2018), it was found that 25% of adolescent girls were married before the age of 18, while 10% of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 had started having children. . According to the Public Affairs Index Report (2020), Karnataka ranks low (1.22) on the Gender Parity Index. This means that the situation is much worse and that adolescent girls are at a higher risk of dropping out of school, early marriage and childbirth. After extensive consultations with marginalized adolescent girls in North Karnataka, we identified a clear gap on the ground: the absence of local peer role models to elevate girls’ aspirations and inspire them to stay in school and build a future.

To bring girls into safe spaces where they could exercise their own agency, life skills education sessions, samvadas (dialogues), leadership, communication camps and exposure visits (where they were presented to successful women) were organised. These were key to engendering self-esteem and confidence, helping the girls take control of their lives. The power that emanated from within and gave them the confidence to negotiate with the community and eventually influence them. The intervention revealed that peers influence people’s attitudes, aspirations and behaviors, particularly with regard to schooling. Local role models of adolescent girls and parents who have demonstrated and championed the importance of girls’ education, postponement of marriage, improved nutrition and better hygiene have been created among their peers.

The goal of the project is not only to engage and train adolescent girls and parents as role models who will demonstrate and advocate for the importance and benefits of girls’ education and equitable gender norms among their peers in a district, but to create such peer role models. in every village in the country to empower adolescent girls and help them claim their right to health and development.

Using these peer leader models, it is easy to focus on creating and empowering role models within communities. In doing so, the program increased their high school completion rates, reduced child marriage rates, and increased nutritional metrics. The role models then transfer the baton of power to their won peers in their villages and the powerful cycle of change and empowerment will continue.

Mallika Tharakan is Manager, Knowledge Management, KHPT

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