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India: Community guides empower young girls of Maharashtra

Mar 04, 2011

An agriculture research institute in southern India is responding real-time to the knowledge needs of farmers by training women to interact virtually with scientists and seek solutions. This agro-advisory system has helped local residents battle a severe drought which struck the region a couple of years back.

New Delhi: Her face breaks into a smile when Rukhma Lakshman Kale sees herself on the giant screen in a Unicef film screened at the release of the State of The World's Children report. In the film, the 27-year-old mother of one is shown engaging with girls in village Antapur in Maharashtra's Chandrapur district. Rukhma is a source of strength for these girls, 14 of whom she's ensured go to school.

In India almost 47% girls aged 11 to 19 years are underweight, says Unicef's report. Further, 56% are anaemic. Of India's 243 million adolescents, 40% is out of school and 43% marry before age 18, out of whom 13% become teenage mothers.

This is where women like Rukhma step in as part of Unicef's Deepshikha programme, launched in 2008 across four districts in Maharashtra. Rukhma engages with teenagers to guide them on everything from child marriage, personal hygiene and reproductive health to basics of savings and banking. The project has created 1600 girl groups, reaching out to 35,000 teenagers. A 20-day stint is the main life-skills training module, but the girls and women leading it, such as Rukhma, end up being community guides. Involving girls in village activities has included helping panchayats, testing water at public water sources and checking haemoglobin levels.

When Rukhma found out girls in Antapur —- though enrolled —- never attended school, she first convinced the parents. Then she got transfer certificates for all 14 from the government school in a village 14 km away and admitted to an ashram school for tribals even further away. "If it wasn't a residential school, they wouldn't go," she says, her inner strength almost defying her thin frame.

There's reason for the strength. When Rukhma came to her parents' house to deliver her first child, her husband ran off with another woman. When she returned to her in-laws', they let her stay outside with the cows. She struggled that way with her newborn for two months, till her father took her back. Rukhma simply shrugs it off. "It could have happened to anyone," she says. Her son now 7, she works as farm-labour and volunteers for Unicef. She starts her day with a prayer to her 'Mahadev' that may she never be bitter, may her mind remain pure and may her son grow up healthy and wise. Rukhma is looking at creating vocational work for girls such as chalk-making, book-binding and working threshers for toor dal. Her goal, she says via her translator —- social worker Devidas Kamble —- is to help the village young and convince parents to stop child marriage.

Stopping child marriage is top of mind for Reshma Umarparsia Sheikh in a neighbouring village. Reshma is all confidence, stopping mid-sentence only to get the right word. The 18-year-old restarted school last year in Class 9, having dropped out earlier in Class 7 on her parents' advice. She'd be married soon, Reshma agreed. She knew no other way to be.

It was a meeting with 'Asha didi' that gave her the impetus to restart schooling. "Like my parents, I too questioned the purpose of school, but well, now I know," says the teenager who is right now in no mind to get married. She's busy counseling against child marriage and talking reproductive health after school —- like many others, chasing community goals they're perfectly at home with.

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