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Life skills project empowers adolescents to fight their own battles
" The aim of the pilot project was to empower the existing school ecosystem and foster a sustainable environment through key messages of gender equality, development, education, health and child rights. "

MUMBAI, India, 13 OCTOBER 2016: It was a canvas of inspirational stories—one, about a group of teenaged girls and how they fought their substance abuse problem; another about a bunch of adolescent boys, who, after learning about gender sensitivity, realised that their eve-teasing was not harmless, and definitely not heroic, as shown in the films.

Yet another was about a group of teenagers breaking the silence around a taboo subject—menstruation—and performing a play on it. On a pleasant Friday afternoon, this October 7, as adolescents in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, shared their tales of personal battles and how a unique Life Skills Education (LSE) pilot project helped them emerge victorious, the audience witnessed heroes emerging from the moulds of so-called regular children.   

As they shared their real-life experiences, the children made the audience sit up and take note of the paradigm-shift that the in-school programme, targeting adolescent boys and girls, was creating. The aim of the LSE pilot project was to empower the existing school ecosystem and foster a sustainable environment through key messages of gender equality, development, education, health and child rights. 

Anand Melawa, as the event was titled, proved that the project—rolled out in 100 schools in Chandrapur—was living up to its aim and has brought about transformation in the attitudes of the teenagers and positively impacted their learning aptitude in the classroom as well.

The idea behind the event, held at Jijau Lawns, was to have a sharing exercise so as to assess the performance of the pilot project and to gauge the qualitative impact that it has had on the lives of the children and local communities.

The day-long programme was organised by the Zila Parishad of Chandrapur, in collaboration with project partners UNICEF and YASHADA. Among the audience were top officials of the district who got to hear first-hand about how the programme was implemented at the grassroots level, from those who were on the frontline of the project: the children, peer educators, master trainers and block coordinators.

The Melawa was attended by Mr. M. Devender Singh, IAS, the Chief Executive Officer of the Zila Parishad of Chandrapur; Mr. Rakesh Rathore, Deputy CEO, VP, Zila Parishad;  

Ms. Sandhya Gurnule, President, Zila Parishad; Mr. Devrao Bhongle, Chairperson, Education Department; and representatives from UNICEF and YASHADA. Among the 750 participants were 101 prerikas (Deepshika facilitator), 361 peer educators, 35 master trainers/coordinators, 200 teachers and 53 Sarpanchs/presidents of School Management Committees.

The participants represented 100 schools (including Zila Parishad schools, Ashramshalas and private-aided high schools from both rural and urban divisions), spanning all 15 blocks of Chandrapur, where the project has had a presence.

The inaugural session of the event was followed by a host of performances by the children. The participants chose innovative formats like dance, mono acts, theatre and picture stories to present their ideas and experiences on themes ranging from child rights and ‘my school’ to the ill-effects of substance abuse and the importance of managing time and finances judiciously.

Speaking on the occasion, Zila Parishad CEO Mr. M. Devender Singh said, “I have gone through the programme at length and found that it disseminates critical messages related to health, education and livelihood – the key aspects of what we call human development. I am glad that through this project we have contributed to a better understanding of human development among adolescents.”

Ms. Gurnule commended the LSE programme for “raising awareness levels among children, and transforming them into responsible citizens and torchbearers for the old and new generation alike.”

“Their newfound awareness has helped government programmes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan make an impact,” she said. Mr. Bhongle added, “The happiness and confidence visible on each child’s face says it all. Such programmes have a long-term impact; it should continue in the district and endeavour to cover all students.”

Ms. Anuradha Nair of UNICEF also addressed the gathering and shed some light on the inception of the LSE programme in the district. “Inequitable gender constructions need to be challenged and changed in the formative years. Changing deep-rooted gender inequitable attitudes is always a ‘work in progress’ and a strong reflective lens if acquired can help the process continue relentlessly. School is a sustainable platform for creating a gender-just society. It was the success of the widely-recognised Deepshikha Life Skills Empowerment programme that covered adolescent girls since 2008, which led us to develop this in-school life skills education programme to cover boys and girls equally, and to ensure continuity through the school system.” 

About the Project

It is envisaged that a project aimed at changing gender equitable attitudes requires a conducive ecosystem for its manifestation and consolidation.  The process cannot survive in isolation. The intervention commenced with a focus on students and progressively covered teachers, system actors and village units as part of the ecosystem. The LSE module is divided into two phases, each consisting of 12 sessions. The pilot project, supported by Barclays Bank through UK NatCom, was based on the ‘peer educator’ model wherein a boy and a girl selected from each class were given training by the masters trainers (coached by YASHADA and UNICEF), and who in turn conducted sessions in the class with the support of Deepshikha (or similar) prerikas, under the supervision of teachers and Block Education Officers. A trained prerika was attached to each school for the hand-holding of peer educators. One and half hour sessions were conducted in the schools every Saturday after regular classes ended. All 24 sessions were completed by March 2016. The LSE programme which has so far targeted students in classes 8 and 9 could also be extended to those in class 10.

Children’s Voices

On Menstrual Hygiene Management: Asmita Nimsarkar, class 10, Janata Vidyalaya, Pompurna block, said, “I performed a play on menstrual hygiene with another girl and two boys. We chose the theme ourselves. Earlier we would have never dreamed of performing a play on this subject, let alone discussing it with boys. The LSE programme has not only taught us about our anatomy but also given us the confidence to discuss a taboo subject like menstrual hygiene in public.”

Asha Bhadke, Prerika, Devadakhurd, Pompurna block, added, “The sessions on reproductive health that focussed on the male and female anatomies were an eye-opener. One boy had even asked why boys don’t have a uterus. The sessions on menstrual hygiene have increased awareness among girls and their families with regard to the need to use sanitary napkins.”

On Gender Discrimination: Vikas Pedapalliwar, class 10, Vishwashanti Vidyalaya, Marod, Mul block, said, “The LSE programme helped me understand what gender discrimination is and how it affects us all. I liked the varied sessions as they were interactive and activity-based.”

On Abuse: Roshni Zade, Prerika, Dhaba Janata Vidyalaya, Gondpimpri block, said, “During the sessions on gender abuse, the boys shared that they used to emulate the antics of film heroes on the big screen while indulging in eve-teasing. After hearing girls talk about their humiliating and frightening experiences, many boys said they felt guilty about their actions and vowed to stop.”

On Financial Management: Rahul Rakhe, Master Trainer, Warora block, said, “I have seen positive changes in the attitudes of the participants; their confidence and awareness levels have soared. The sessions on financial management were effective. Many children decided to forego luxuries like smart phones and fancy clothes, keeping in mind the financial status of their families and by understanding the value of money.”

On Substance Abuse: Sahil Choudhary and Harshad Darekar, class 10, Bhavanjibai Chauhan High School, Chandrapur block, said, “Our social skills improved greatly. We learned how to manage time and make the best use it for our all-round development. We know 24 hours is enough to study, play, eat, sleep and spend time with family too. We feel that substance abuse is an area that needs to be worked on based on what we see around us in society.”

The Way Forward

The District Administration and CEO of the Zila Parishad of Chandrapur is hopeful that the Melawa will lead to more discussions on adolescent programming in the district to influence key social indicators. The possibility of bringing in CSR investments to continue the programme may also be explored.

The results of the pilot project have already received a wide recognition at the state level. The Maharashtra Human Development Commissionerate has drafted guidelines to scale up the model across 23 districts in the state, covering 4500 schools. Similar interest has been shown by the Departments of Tribal Development and Social Justice. They have expressed a desire to replicate the project in their respective jurisdictions.

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