Women’s empowerment is getting a new resonance in an underdeveloped Bihar district. Kishanganj, which didn’t have a district hospital till a few years back, is witnessing a revolution with an NGO teaching reproductive and sexual healthcare to teenage girls in a madarsa.
On International Women’s Day, the tale of attitudinal change through innovation and conviction is worth recounting.
The adolescent reproductive and sexual healthcare programme — Project Sanjivini, which began in 2004, was carried out in 15 villages, addressing girls between 10 and 19.
Convincing village elders in a predominantly Muslim district to allow young girls to attend classes on sex education wasn’t easy. It took Azad India Foundation (AIF) two-and-half years to gain the confidence of the people. But there is significant attitudinal change now, says AIF executive director Yuman Hussain.
“An old lady who attended one of the health classes in Mohiuddinpur came back with both her daughters-in-law to have them operated so that they don’t have more children,” she says.
In another instance, a 16-year-old girl, keen on pursuing her education, stood her ground and said she would marry only after she turned 18. “Aware of the hazards of early childbirth, Rosy turned down the marriage proposal,” recalls Parwez Raza, coordinator of the programme.
According to the 2001 census, Kishanganj has the lowest female literacy rate (18.5 per cent) in India.
Cases of human trafficking and cases of HIV/AIDS are on the rise, says the AIF. Early marriages and pregnancies are common.
Najma Das, an AIF field worker from Kishanganj, made a social breakthrough when she began to teach reproductive healthcare to girls in the madarsa.
"We didn't start off by directly talking about birth control and permanent contraception. But with time, we put our message across and the girls were keen to understand," said Das.
The endeavour has the approval of religious leaders. Gyasuddin, a 70-year-old cleric from Mohiuddinpur village, had this to say about allowing women community leaders from AIF to teach at his madarsa: "The Koran says that if need be one should go to China to acquire education. So why not the madarsa?"