Questions about ‘the birds and the bees’ and how the stork dropped the baby home often have parents squirming. Most often, the task of explaining the ‘facts’ is juggled between the mum and dad who would like to think of a better way to get the message across without having to answer too many questions. Body awareness and basic hygiene are as much a challenge for the parent and teacher to talk about as it is confusing for adolescents. While some schools tie-up with various NGOs and try to get the message across and fairly progressive parents hope their children would ask it of them rather than relying on peers and internet, in most Indian homes, any discussions related to puberty, body awareness and sex are a taboo.
Though teachers and school managements realize the need to provide a holistic education, especially for teenagers, in most schools any information related to growing up is dealt with as a part of the usual curriculum. “Schools do have a system of teaching about reproductive system as a part of their regular science course but that is just limited to scoring marks in the examination. Teachers can only instruct students; for better access to information on health and hygiene related issues among girl adolescents, we invite Family Planning Association of India (FPAI) which addresses a session on this. Usually a counsellor and a doctor are a part of the workshops conducted by the initiative. As professionals they can deal with these questions better,” says Sangeetha Verma, principal of Richmond High School at Kamalapuri. She adds that students are also taught the difference between ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ in order to be aware of sexual abuse in their growing up years.
The gap between the schooling system extends in this aspect as well, given the paucity of teachers and resources. The 23 per cent drop out rate among adolescent girls in the country due to poor sanitation facilities at schools speaks of the taboo surrounding puberty at home and in society. The disconnect got Averil Spencer thinking, an IDEX fellow in social enterprise. On her visit to the affordable private schools in and around Hyderabad in 2010 as a part of the fellowship programme, the contrast between their ambitions and the real-deal faced by girls from socially backward families struck her as unfair.
“I met really smart girls at the school level who always say that they would like to become doctors or engineers or teachers and look forward to going to college. But when I would talk to their teachers, congratulating them on the bright students they had, they would invariably tell us that most of these girls were married off at 16 years or a little more than that and most of them would drop out of school after reaching puberty. In some cases, parents were unwilling to send them to schools while others were worried about the sanitation and hygiene issues,” says Averil who founded Voice 4 Girls.
An NGO formed in August 2010, the group focuses on imparting communication skills as well as body awareness education to girl students from affordable private schools for free. Spearheaded by Averil, Allison and Ilana, the NGO has become popular through their summer camp that they conduct exclusively for girls.
“We started the programme with the intention of imparting spoken English and communication classes over the summer. However, after talking to students, we realised the need for making them aware of hygiene, knowledge about their changing bodies and forming support groups among their communities to speak up against abuse and domestic violence. We also found it necessary to teach them to identify people within the household and in the peer group or local community who would form their first line of contact in case of an emergency,” explains Averil who is presently the director of Voice 4 Girls and flits between Hyderabad and the US while the other core members support the organisation from US.
Despite being an outsider, Averil found it easy to enroll the girls into the programme by promising better career prospects while parents were contended as well with their wards kept busy during the summer vacations. “We do teach the girls how to communicate effectively and in English so as to improve their chances of finding employment. We also teach them how to convince and persuade a group of people. Apart from this, we talk to them about possible career options. For example, one might not be able to afford being a doctor but on similar lines, the girls can take up courses in nursing or as a technician in a laboratory – which are doable options,” explains Averil about the month-long programme.
When it came to talking about body-awareness, the group did not have it easy from parents. “We did hear from some of the parents who were not happy with the idea of their daughters learning about life skills and discussing topics which are usually hushed up. However, some were also relieved, especially those in a nuclear family structure, for mothers are not comfortable discussing issues regarding reproduction, abuse or domestic violence directly. The absence of older female members in the family does not leave anyone for the girls to ask questions to. Also, menstruation is considered a taboo. So we make the girls understand that it is a natural process and explain about what has to be done during their periods. We do tell the parents, especially the mothers, what their daughters will be learning about,” says Averil who adds that it is understandably difficult for teachers to deal with these topics in affordable private schools as they are hard pressed to complete the syllabus.
The organisation employs 10 full-time staff members and conducts the camps at school with the help of volunteers drawn from various colleges across the city. The volunteers are trained first and follow the curriculum and activities designed by the organisation to get the message across to girls from standard 6th to 10th. Voice 4 Girls works with various schools in Andhra Pradesh as well as Uttarakhand and has conducted three summer camps so far in the state and had recently concluded a 15 day workshop for students of AP Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society – the first government school collaboration.
Avrile looks forward to a long innings and plans to expand the programme. “We also conducted a pilot camp for boys in December 2012 to drive home the message that girls are as entitled to the public sphere and lives as they are. I don’t think I am done with Hyderabad yet,” wraps up the 26 year-old.