Young activists are spreading knowledge and awareness

Writer: Grieteke Meerman

In the Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA) the lobbying is not only done for girls, it’s also done by girls. This collaborative programme of Plan International Nederland, Terre des Hommes, Defence for Children − ECPAT and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already achieved a lot, but there is more to be done.

Unfortunately, the statistics for violence against girls and women in India are high. Child marriages are still a big problem: 27 per cent of girls are married before they are 18, and seven per cent before the age of 15. It has been estimated that one in three women have experienced sexual, psychological or other forms of violence during the past year. Reliable data on child trafficking is not available, but a recent study into contemporary slavery in India speaks volumes. With some 18 million victims − including adults − there is no country in the world where this problem is more pronounced. On a more specific note: approximately three million girls and women in India are involved in prostitution, which often goes hand-in-hand with child trafficking and 60 per cent of it affects minors.

Plan International Nederland, Terre des Hommes, Defence for Children – ECPAT and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs have therefore joined forces in an effort to address this problem. In 2016 they collectively set up the GAA, a programme that actively lobbies at all levels of society for equal rights and opportunities for girls and young women. In addition to India, the GAA is also lobbying in Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The GAA lobbying is not only being done for girls, it’s also being done by girls. In India, for example, 495 youth advocates are learning − during special training sessions and often in their own surroundings − how they can influence religious leaders, members of the community and local authorities to reduce child marriage, child trafficking and other forms of violence against girls and women. The programme is also simultaneously striving towards making education more accessible for girls. Education, it is reasoned, will strengthen their position in the jobs market, increase their economic independence and thus make them less vulnerable to violence.

While it’s difficult to measure tangible results for a project that focuses on influencing people and institutions, many improvements have already been achieved after just two years, says Jos van Heijningen of Plan International Nederland. “We have seen a number of changes in India. By holding discussions and carrying out research, for example, we’ve been able to convince politicians to take another long hard look at the law banning child marriages. It is a law that still has too many loopholes, but the authorities seem to be open to our recommendations for improving it.”

Another result pertains to a more active approach to tackling violence in education. With a view to preventing violence in schools, senior politicians and directors of government institutions in some federal states have laid down guidelines for school managers and teaching staff. Furthermore, school staff and management, like police officers, have been trained to recognise and prevent violence. And they are now being supported in their efforts to persuade parents to keep their young daughters at school rather than marrying them off.

A further result booked by the GAA is the huge reach that’s been achieved by a promotional film stressing the importance of eradicating child marriages. The government allowed the film to be played before the main feature in several cinemas for a period of four months. “This is fantastic. Don’t forget, the fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts and the local elders are the ones who have the final say and the power to reverse a child marriage. This is the way to achieve it,” adds Van Heijningen.

Another positive development is that GAA representatives are currently in dialogue with large Indian companies that can play a role in bringing more women into the workplace. “Apparently, there is a law in India that stipulates that companies must spend two per cent of their annual turnover on Corporate Social Responsibility. Unfortunately, it’s not getting any further than the statute books. We are now talking to the management of these companies in the hope that we can demonstrate that that two per cent can be spent very effectively on educating girls. If girls can keep attending school, child marriages will be prevented and the girls will be given a much better starting position for entering the jobs market.”

The objective is that the knowledge acquired by these girls’ groups during the training courses will spread extensively throughout India. “First and foremost, it’s our fervent hope that the training courses will increase the girls’ knowledge and awareness,” insists Van Heijningen. “Secondly, we want them to feel empowered so that they’ll be able to take the initiative in their own villages, form small groups of their own, and then lobby themselves for equal rights.”

Despite the negative statistics alluded to earlier, there is still reason for optimism. “The focus on violence perpetrated against women has grown enormously during these past few years,” assures Van Heijningen. “Partly as a result of the horrific rape incidents reported in India in recent years, women’s activism has grown exponentially. And there is an increasing undercurrent in Indian society in which people are realising that their treatment of girls cannot continue as it is.”