Adolescents and Youth Lead the Way During Covid-19 Pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic shook the entire world during 2020. When everything had come to a standstill, there was a momentum created by the adolescents and youth that Breakthrough works with across the 5 states of India. They showed tremendous leadership and took initiatives to support their peers, families and communities while following all precautions themselves. This is still going strong during the second wave, which is proving to be even more disastrous than the first.

What Did They Do?

Access to Ration

In Bazar Tola village, Bhathat block, Gorakhpur, Kavita, Ridhima, Aditya, Nisha, Tanu, Isha were some adolescents who along with Breakthrough’s peer educator Roshni decided to help the vulnerable families of their village who were at risk of starvation. They collected dry food items from their own houses such as flour, pulses, rice, salt etc. and shared these with these families of their village. They made sure that they had masks on their faces and followed physical distancing. The village head came to know about their wonderful initiative and was very impressed. He too made efforts and ensured that these families get rations from the Public Distribution System. By 22nd May 2020, we had received information that about 82 families of Lucknow and Gorakhpur Breakthrough intervention areas have benefitted from such sharing of personal household stocks. 298 adolescents of our intervention areas shared rations from their own households during lockdown in Uttar Pradesh. As word spread across areas where we work, some adolescents like Tamanna and Pinna from villages of Haryana took up similar initiatives. 

Masks & Sanitisation 

During the lockdown in Uttar Pradesh, adolescents of 477 gram panchayats followed up with village heads for sanitisation of neglected pockets in their areas. Older adolescents and youth group members of Chandaul village, Badgaanv block, Jharkhand took part in an awareness and cleanliness drive for prevention of the spread of Covid-19. 

At several places in our intervention areas there was either a shortage of masks or they were being sold at a very high price. Hence many youth leaders and the local women’s groups took up the task of preparing masks for their families and neighbours. These adolescents and women were informed by our community developers about the correct way of making, using and cleaning the masks. They in turn informed their family members and friends while distributing the masks. 5620 masks were made and distributed in 117 gram panchayats in Uttar Pradesh by adolescents with support of stakeholders. In 4 gram panchayats of Haryana more than 600 masks were made and distributed.

 Menstrual Health 

During the lockdown Aditya from Bazar Tola village, Foolwariya gram panchayat, Bhathat block, Gorakhpur noticed that the female members of his family were running short on sanitary pads as supplies were affected. He figured out that other people must be suffering too. Aditya in pre-Covid times had attended a training on making reusable cloth sanitary napkins from discarded clothes. Aditya started talking about this training with women and girls of his neighborhood. He invited them to learn from him how to make sanitary pads at home. The women were initially shocked to see a boy discussing menstruation openly with them. Aditya did not get embarrassed at their reaction. He told them that menstruation is a completely natural process. He added that there is no need to feel embarrassed as both boys and girls undergo various kinds of developmental changes in their bodies and mind, and these things should be discussed so that all have the correct information. The women and girls agreed and Aditya gave them training on how to make reusable cloth sanitary pads. Reports of such initiatives also came from other villages in Gorakhpur and Lucknow as word spread. 

In Haryana, Sweta, Sapna, Yogita, Barsha and Tanuja from Dujana and Dhamwanti and Kumkum from Bamnola, Jhajjar broke the stigma around menstruation and raised demand for sanitary pads for the women around them. 

Early Marriage

Sunny, Mamta and Neetu are active youth champions of Breakthrough’s programme in Harijan tola,Jamuniya village, Bhathat block, Gorakhpur. During lockdown they came to know that the marriage of a 17 year old girl of their village had been fixed by her parents. They were appalled by this and discussed the strategy to intervene. They together went to the  girl’s house to persuade her parents to change their decision. They told her parents that performing marriage of an underage girl was a legal offence and if she complained to the authorities then they could be jailed too. They also shared how underage marriage spoils the future of girls and if any unfortunate event is to take  place in their daughter’s life due to this in future, then they will be to blame. The girl’s parents were persuaded to postpone their plan till she completed 18 years of age. Another 17-year-old girl, Priya, of the same village was also troubled because her parents were talking about her marriage. Priya shared this with her friend Mamta. In her case too, Sunny, Mamta and Neetu talked to the parents and were successful in collectively persuading them to change their decision. Priya’s parents have now allowed her to continue her education instead of marrying her off.

Domestic Violence

19-year-old Harsh of Tekri block, Gaya district, Bihar was a part of a poster making competition on domestic violence. Breakthrough’s team in Bihar had organized this competition to spread awareness against domestic violence which has been on the rise during the pandemic. When Harsh pasted the poster and helpline numbers on the walls in strategic places around the village, some boys and men made fun of him. They regarded this as a household matter and said he cannot bring any change by such acts. Harsh replied that it may be a light matter or a normal household matter for them but it is certainly not so for women and girls who suffer from such violence and pain. His cool retort silenced them and gave them points to ponder upon. 

Post lockdown in Haryana, one of the older adolescents, Pinna organised training with 60 women of self help groups on domestic violence in her community. She took the initiative to pitch the training to the group and fixed the date and invited Breakthrough to facilitate the training. Pinna also organised a sports event in her village to talk about the existing gender based discrimination and the risk of adolescent girls dropping out post lockdown. In the event she asked for commitment from the parents to continue education of their daughters at any cost. She engaged 120 parents, stakeholders and adolescents through this.

What Made This Possible? 

Breakthrough has been working with adolescents through an umbrella programme called the Adolescent Empowerment Programme (AEP) since 2012. This programme helps build awareness around gender equality and shifts attitudes and behaviours  at a stage of life when the views are still malleable and adolescents are curious enough to question discriminatory norms. This programme runs across 5 states of India, which are Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Bihar and Jharkhand; states with some of the worst gender indicators in the country. We currently reach over 520,000 adolescent girls and boys from the ages of 11 to 18 years. The programme aims to ensure rights and agency for adolescents; helping them demand equity in health, education and career aspirations, as well as life choices in their homes and community, for themselves and for others. 

Breakthrough does this through an innovative life skills curriculum and group formation called Taaron ki Toli (Gang of Stars) in schools and communities. The initiative empowers girls and boys to identify and tackle harmful social and gender norms, encourages them to be confident, develops their leadership skills and enables them to make decisions about their own lives. It builds their negotiation skills, encourages inter-gender and inter-generational dialogues and starts seeding the discussion on sexual and reproductive health. We also work with 3000, 19-25 year old’s building their leadership – they are who we call Team Change Leaders.

Taaron ki Toli helps develop a unique camaraderie and group cohesiveness which inspires adolescents for collective action. The engagement of adolescents in activities such as wall painting, rallies, video van shows, theatre of the oppressed, kishori melas and hyper local campaigns during their regular engagement with Breakthrough builds their leadership skills and the ability to work in teams.

It also brings out their potential and talents before parents and community. This bridges the communication gap between the adolescents, stakeholders and community as safe spaces are created for inter-gender and intergenerational dialogues. These also bring recognition and appreciation to the transformation that is evident in the personality of adolescents. As a result, the voice of adolescents is heard when they raise issues with PRIs or in other public forums or negotiate on key life decisions at home. The collectivisation of adolescents and their interactions through these activities with the relevant stakeholders, the on-ground social networking of adolescents grows and they finally get a conducive environment to express, raise demands and negotiate for public entitlements and services. Most COVID relief work was possible by adolescents due to this empowerment model where a conducive eco-system has already been created for adolescents to express, lead and take initiatives.

The leadership taken up by the older adolescents and  young adults during this pandemic is our ray of hope during these unprecedented times. They proved to us time and again that when we talk about transformative gender norms, we must focus on adolescents as they not only take it upon themselves to deepen the learning, their praxis influences their families, communities, and societies more often than not.

This blog post has been written by Supriya Tewari and Naresh Kumar of Breakthrough team. 

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