India Interior

The changing face of adolescents in Gujarat

Usha Rai | Updated on August 24, 2019 Published on August 24, 2019

An empowerment programme, CHETNA, is transforming youngsters

Rawal Ajay Jagdishbhai (23), Rathod Jaipal Singh (21), Priyanka (20), Mitali (20) and Reena (20) of Talod block of Sabarkantha district of Gujarat were adolescents in 2013-2014 when they received the benefits of a comprehensive adolescent health and empowerment programme, CHETNA (Centre for Health, Education, Training and Nutrition Awareness).

At that time, their problems seemed insurmountable and varied from being forced into early marriage, dropping out of school to lack of confidence, among other things.

Today, when one meets 15 of the 10,000 children of the 73 villages of Talod block who were steered through their difficult adolescent years, it is a heart-warming experience. The hand-holding by the field workers of CHETNA, government functionaries like Anganwadi workers, ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists) and school teachers has worked and today these are confident youngsters.

A solution for every issue

It was during discussions under the programme that one of the girls realised that, at 17, she was the only one in her class who was not menstruating. A meeting with anganwadi workers revealed that she was anaemic. Given iron folic acid tablets and a diet rich in green leafy vegetables, pulses and milk, in six months she joined the ranks of other girls of her age and could focus better on her studies.

One of the young men recounted how he masturbated every day for six months, felt guilty and could not concentrate on his studies. The field supervisor of the programme helped divert his mind through games and reading books/newspapers and soon he began to concentrate better.

Weaned away from watching dirty videos, he cleared his 10th exam with 70 per cent. He did a course at the ITI (Industrial Training Institute) and works with Suzuki in assembling cars. Married at 23, he has not taken dowry because the practice does not exist in his village. His wife, who works with a beauty parlour, is pregnant and he makes it a point to accompany her to the doctor for all her check-ups.

Jaipal is 21, and in the third year of his BA course. When he was in class 11 in school, he was keen on English and did well too. But he couldn’t get the subject of his choice in college.

He recalls with nostalgia his interaction and friendship with 40 boys and girls who were part of his group of adolescents. It is with them that he stepped out of Kambodera village for the first time to go to Ahmedabad for training.

However, giving in to family pressures, he married at 21. He is keen on a start-up that will probably be on the lines of the drip irrigation project that his brother works with.

Most visible success

It is in Priyanka of Movadi village that the transformation is most evident. She was 14, her face was covered with pimples and she was tired all the time. Her classmates sarcastically called her Beauty Queen.

She was directed to Ashaben, the anganwadi worker, who assured her that the eruptions on her face were due to hormonal changes. A blood test revealed that her haemoglobin was just 8, so she was put on a diet of green, leafy vegetables, given iron tablets daily, and also taught to wash her face regularly with clean water. Within six months, her face cleared and her energy levels soared as the haemoglobin count went up to 12.

Today, Priyanka has completed BSc and is applying for MSc in microbiology. Since she did not clear NEET, her dream of becoming a doctor didn’t materialise. But she has decided to join the pharmaceutical industry. She is also preparing for the civil services exam. Priyanka has told her parents she has no intention of getting married till she is 25 and “….then I will see.”

Mitali is a school dropout. She was married off at 19 but found her husband mentally unstable. She sought a divorce. “I will rebuild my life,” she says, with confidence.

Early marriage saps the empowerment dreams of young girls. In Gujarat, 18.7 per cent of the girls get married before they are 18 and 34.5 per cent of boys before they are 21. Reena was just 14 when she was married off, along with her elder sister. After six months, when her parents visited her, she told them how unhappy she was and they got her a divorce. Mansi was even younger, just 10, when she was married. She refused to go to her husband’s home, got a divorce, continued with her education and married only after she turned 18. “ All their experiences have been published in the form of a comic book, “Building a better future — stories of change.

With more components added like mental health, injury and violence, substance abuse and non-communicable disease, the adolescents programme continues in Sabarkantha under the Centrally sponsored RKSK (Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram). Teachers and doctors, ayush and homeopathy included, are being trained by CHETNA to run it in schools. Condoms are available even for the unmarried at the PHC to prevent HIV and unwanted pregnancies. At the waiting area, the eight Ammaji videos on issues related to adolescents are screened continuously and books/newspapers provided.

However, it is at the schools that there is greater focus on adolescent issues. Children speaking up and doing well in the special classes get small rewards, like a compass box or file holder. Dr Vinod Mughad, Block Health Officer, says vending machines for sanitary napkins have been installed in schools and in 67 schools, steel incinerators have been provided for easy disposal of napkins. Hence, school attendance is improving.

The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist

Published on August 24, 2019
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