Engendering Social Transformation Through an Educational Intervention

By Sreeparna Chattopadhyay and H.S. Srikanta Murthy | May 9, 2018

According to the 2011 Census, there are over 2.4 million adolescent girls aged 10 – 14 years who are married in India. Early marriage deprives girls of their legal entitlements to education…

Tuition classes for the poor performing girls to get excellence in their final exams 900x506

Lessons from the Samata Project

Benefits of Keeping Girls in School Longer

According to the 2011 Census, there are over 2.4 million adolescent girls aged 10 – 14 years who are married in India. Early marriage deprives girls of their legal entitlements to education, violating their human rights while simultaneously impeding India’s targets set as part of the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals. While access to and availability of education is a necessary condition for a gender-just society, they are not sufficient. Following Kabeer (2005), Aikman and Unterhalter (2005), and the capability approach (Sen 2005) we argue that achieving gender equality entails developing freedoms of all individuals irrespective of gender or other markers of discrimination, to choose actions, aspirations and attributes that they have reason to value’ (Aikman and Unterhalter 2005: 3). If education through formal schooling is one of the primary processes that develops the capabilities of individuals, then the quality of education is a critical factor. Further, if education is being used to displace negative gender norms with more egalitarian and positive gender norms, then it is necessary to have gender-equity embedded within the curriculum as well as the classroom interactions. Thus, quality in education cannot be narrowly understood as closing the gender gap in educational attainment between boys and girls through assessments or through school completion (Aikman and Rao 2012). It needs to be expanded to include the terrain of quality’ that makes power asymmetries its central concern (Aikman and Unterhalter, 2013). In fact, students’ experiences within educational institutions are a reflection of the discriminations they experience within other social institutions in any given context.

There are many instrumental and emancipatory reasons to keep girls in secondary schools longer; the former includes, preventing child marriages, delaying childbirth, and ensuring immunized and healthier children (Grown, Gupta and Pande 2005). In this study, the focus is on adolescent girls from the erstwhile Devadasi communities as well as the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities in Northern Karnataka through an intervention called Samata. Samata’s theory of change’ begins with the assumption that if adolescent girls complete class X, they are more likely to have sexual debut later, marry later, and enter sex work later, thus reducing their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and improving their quality of life as well as the possibility of entering professions other than sex work.1 The emancipatory benefits include transformation into autonomous and engaged citizens (Stromquist 2015).2 While the focus of this intervention is on concrete reductions in rates of child marriages and delay in the sexual debut of girls, the learnings of this intervention are applicable for communities that are struggling with girls dropping out of secondary schools due to the devaluation of girls’ education and norms around early marriage.3

Samata – The Intervention

Samata is a cluster randomized controlled trial (RCT) that was conducted across 80 villages with an equal number distributed in intervention and control areas in the districts of Bijapur and Bagalkot in North Karnataka.4 It is being implemented and evaluated by the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust (KHPT) along with technical inputs and conceptualisation from STRIVE, a global consortium of organizations that aims to mitigate and prevent HIV/AIDS globally, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Further details on the specific activities of the intervention are provided in Table 1.

There are four clear programmatic goals of this intervention:
a) to increase secondary school enrolment of SC/ST girls
b) to reduce secondary school drop-out rates of girls thereby increasing retention rates
c) to delay marriage of girls until after 15 years,5 and
d) to reduce the sexual debut of girls including entry into sex work before age 15 (Beattie et al 2015; ICHAP 2003).

Table 1- Specific Activities Within the Intervention

Adolescent GirlsDiscussions/​workshops typically devoted to a single issue with topics ranging from self-respect, confidence building, communication strategies, conflict resolution, friendships and marriage, understanding the difference between biological sex and its social and culturally constructed manifestations in the form of gender roles; self-defence training; reproductive health and hygiene including facilitating access to the Sneha Clinics.6 Also, crisis management both, inside families such as, instances of abuse and outside families such as, sexual harassment on the streets;7 sensitization of natural, physical and emotional changes during adolescence; and the cultivation of gender egalitarian attitudes.Each group of 15 – 20 girls that meet weekly and became part of the Community Advisory Board (CAB)
SchoolsFormulation of school-level gender action plans (to build leaderships skills in girls supporting the activities of the CAB and better mentoring of girls by teachers); gender-sensitivity training and safety plans for school staff; formation of safety committees; leveraging support from teachers, parents, the community and the SDMCs (School Development Management Committees) for Samata’s programmatic goals and in particular using the SDMCs to build support in the community. Safety plans are drafted along with consultation in schools and include the following: building and maintaining functional school toilets, encouraging suggestions from students through anonymous mechanisms, construction of school walls and other physical interventions important for children’s safety.8 The Outreach workers (ORWs) work with schools to foster healthy interaction between the sexes by increasing the inclusion of girls in sports such as Kabaddi, Badminton and Kho-Kho, and ensuring that boys and girls play together.Teachers, head-teachers, SDMC committee members.
ParentsThe ORWs making parents aware of social and economic entitlements such as the Antodiya card, school-based support such as free tuitions for girls falling behind or at the risk of dropping out; scholarships for girls; BPL cards; and counselling parents on possible academic and vocational careers. Also, continuous reinforcing of the negative impacts of girls’ dropping out.
Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs)Advocacy to support the cause of girls’ education; enable funding for school building work; and continuous dialogue to reinforce the value of educating daughters and highlighting the negative impacts of early marriage. Also, intervention of PRI members to stop child marriages.Sarpanch, PRI members

The project was planned over July 2012 to June 2017 and as of June 2016, had covered 3600 adolescent girls and over 1800 families in 119 villages and 69 high schools in Bijapur and Bagalkot Districts. As of July 2016, 86% of the teachers and 59% of the SDMC members were trained on gender issues. 90% of schools had implemented a tracking tool for girls to track drop-outs and absenteeism; 93% of schools had implemented safety policies; 95% of girls had benefitted from the tuition classes and 70 child marriages had been stopped/​engagements of children postponed with the help of the intervention staff, the local government and non-profit organizations like, Childline.

Teachers and students with the School Safety Plan in one of the Samata intervention schools. Photo credit: Sreeparna Chattopadhyay

The Importance of Outreach Workers

The Outreach Workers (ORWs) are the most crucial link in the Samata intervention program. These are highly motivated women, chosen from the communities where Samata intervenes. Many of these women are acutely aware of the problems of early marriages because they have experienced it themselves. Their work is tough, physically demanding with villages being as far apart as 60 kilometres sometimes requiring up to three hours of travel time daily. The ORWs are also exposed to conflicts due to their dual identities as interventionists and as members of the community they are trying to change and are constantly being forced to negotiate in hostile circumstances. A few have supportive families, but many don’t receive this much-needed support, making their roles extremely challenging. The role of an ORW requires exceptional interpersonal skills since they need to work with a number of stakeholders including parents, adolescent girls (AGs), their families, male mentors, SDMC members, teachers, head teachers, and PRI members.

The ORWs meet the AGs in a variety of settings including as part of a group during the Parivartan Plus9 and CAB sessions, sometimes in schools or alone with the girls and also with their families. The ORWs are required to make an average of eight outreach engagements per day and reach 100 families a month.

Some ORWs have reported multiple instances when they were able to stop child marriages without necessarily involving the police, with the assistance of the PRI and the SDMC members. The ORWs however, caveated stating that this led to positive outcomes only if these stakeholders subscribe to gender-equitable norms and especially if they had completed the gender-sensitivity training. Other civil servants, such as Anganwadi workers and Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) as well as, Family Health Workers (FHWs) may also be roped in depending on the circumstances. The ORWs use a wide variety of communication and pressure tactics depending on their vulnerability analysis of the families. To a large part, the early successes of this program lie in the deep engagement of ORWs.


The data discussed in this paper was collected during the entire duration of the Samata project. The interactions were systematically documented and analysed for recurrent themes, paying close attention to discursive practices in narrating normative changes. During conversations, several participants discussed their experiences and highlighted the successes of the program. One of these has been presented as a case study below.

Case Study of Latha10

Latha, an AG and Jaya her ORW, who along with other stakeholders in the intervention prevented Latha’s early marriage. Latha was a 14-year-old girl living in the Indi Block. Her parents were farmers and her family owned a small plot of land. She had overheard discussions about her marriage and did not want to marry then. She discussed her predicament with a classmate, Puja, who was part of the Samata intervention. Puja spoke to Jaya (ORW) who in turn spoke to Latha to better understand the situation. It turned out that the most active participant was Latha’s maternal uncle who had even offered to pay for her wedding. Latha’s marriage was being arranged to her cousin from the same village. Jaya took a couple of days to gather the facts, after which she visited Latha’s home while Latha was in school. She talked to Latha’s parents not disclosing to her family the source of the information, except to say that she discovered it during her outreach work. Jaya asked the parents whether money was the reason they were arranging the marriage and notified them of their social entitlements. However, it was social pressure, especially pressure from relatives that was driving the parents’ decision.

Jaya emphasised the importance of education for future financial independence citing examples of illness and death of husband leading to widowhood, and subsequent destitution of the girl and also explained the health consequences of early marriage and early childbearing, linking it to both maternal and neonatal mortality. Latha’s family was not a Devdasi family, so Jaya did not have to discuss the possibilities of the girl contracting HIV/AIDS and the dangers from early debut into sex work.

But Jaya realized that Latha’s family had not been amenable to her counselling and seemed adamant about getting her married. Jaya then paid a second visit to Latha’s family, this time taking the help of a more experienced ORW, Poornima. Had Poornima not been available, Jaya would have taken the help of one of the SDMC members or a member of the Gram Panchayat, who have more traction with the community. Despite their best efforts, Jaya and Poornima could not succeed in persuading Latha’s family. Left with no other choice, they called Childline, a non-profit working in collaboration with the state government in this area. Childline along with the help of the police finally succeeded in stopping the marriage.

While in Latha’s case, this escalation was successful, past experiences suggest that on occasions despite police intervention, families try to get the AGs married. A few months prior to Latha’s case, when another such case had occurred, Jaya had the girl relocated to a non-judicial home for her safety, until her family promised to let her continue school and not get her married. Latha’s family was obviously unhappy at the turn of events and for a few weeks after this incident, Jaya encountered considerable hostility from them and others in the village. However, Latha’s mother was easier to convince than the others, and eventually, Latha was able to continue in school, due to the timely and strategic intervention of Jaya, the police and Childline. Latha’s case study indicates that sometimes it is only through a multi-sectoral strategy and the involvement of multiple stakeholders that the desired results can be achieved.

Qualitative Evidence

Addressing Disempowering Gender Norms

The preliminary qualitative findings from the Samata intervention indicate that girls have become more confident and have new aspirations for their lives. The leadership training and involvement in other Samata activities make girls more empowered to confront perpetrators of sexual harassment. Typically, they confront their perpetrators as a group, and initially, boys refuse to accept that they have been harassing girls but eventually accept it.

The hegemonic ideas of masculinity play a critical role in the sexual harassment of girls and women. When asked how many boys had teased girls, a lot of hands went up, including that of the mentor during our Focus Group Discussions (FGDs), a testament to the honesty with which these sessions are run, a critical component for the success of the program. Egged on by peers, and older boys, teasing a girl articulates a certain notion of masculinity and allows them to fit in with the dominant models of masculinity. What further reinforces this behaviour is the expectation that the girls who are being teased will not question this behaviour either out of fear or a sense of shame. Additionally, many communities in India, particularly rural or conservative communities, do not allow for open communication between boys and girls and therefore boys often use teasing to communicate their love or attraction to girls, because this is the only way they know how to communicate these feelings (Chakraborty 2015; Das et al 2015). The girls usually leave the offending boys with a warning, but if things get worse, they may even report the boys to their parents and work with the CAB leaders and ORWs, who in turn work with the mentor in the Parivartan Plus group in the village to address the issue.

The discussions around the issue of sexual harassment brought out many nuances during multiple FGDs and interactions with the program participants. The majority of the boys admitted to teasing girls. However, after their participation in the program, while the urge to tease girls remained, their actions were transformed and they managed to divert their attention, talking among themselves instead of directing comments at the girls. They reported rationalising their behaviours by thinking about girls as their sisters, a relationship which by its very definition is desexualized, therefore potentially eliminating the possibility of sexual harassment.

While the reduction in sexual harassment has been a clear success of the program, there were also other ways in which the program in transforming gender norms. For instance, boys who have been part of the Parivartan Group reported sharing the household chores and helping their sisters with fetching water, sweeping the home, and taking more household responsibilities. Some boys from Hipparagi Block who had gone through the intervention responded that being part of the program sensitised them to the burden of household work that their mothers and sisters bear. Also, it encouraged them to nudge their parents to allow their sisters to complete secondary school even if they were not able to persuade them to send them to pre-university (XI and XII grades).

Impact on Parents

Krishnappa and Dechamma have two daughters; the elder daughter was married soon after she finished class X but they allowed the younger daughter to continue schooling up to a Bachelor’s degree as a result of this intervention. Families involved in this intervention reported more confidence and stage courage’ in their daughters; they saw them as confident young women performing street plays as part of the awareness and sensitization activities of Samata. They also reported that their daughters felt safer travelling to and from schools particularly as a result of the life-skills and conflict resolution training. Parents also felt more assured about the safety of daughters and many were persuaded to let them continue studying beyond class VIII.

One such instance is of Yamunawa and Shivappa, parents of 15-year-old, Renuka, two younger daughters and a son. They live in Managuli, one of the intervention villages. Renuka was part of the Parivartan Plus group in her village. Shivappa works as a Supervisor in a mill nearby and gets paid between twelve and fourteen thousand rupees each month while Yamunawa works as a casual labourer and has an insecure and variable income. Renuka and her sisters after participating in Samata and especially on account of the deep engagement with their ORW, Poornima, decided that they will study beyond class X. While earlier their parents were not in favour of this, after conversations with ORWs and reflecting on their own state of penury as a result of their lack of education, Shivappa has decided to migrate to Delhi for better opportunities so he can support the education of his daughters. While this decision will split the family with the father going away, they have decided that education is the only route available to them for a better life. We asked them whether they were worried that their financial investment into their daughters’ education will not translate into future returns for them because their daughters will get married and may not be able to support them in their old age, given the normative practices. They appeared reconciled with it and emphasised that ultimately higher education would translate into a better life for their daughters, and that mattered the most to them.

Yet another instance was that of Parvati and her two elder sisters, Kasturi and Savitha. Kasturi was physically abused and abandoned by her husband and her return to her natal home had invited snide remarks from the villagers causing distress to the family. Kasturi had become extremely withdrawn which was an added source of concern and sadness for her family. While Kasturi’s situation was difficult to change, Parvati’s engagement with Samata and the experience of her sister, gave Parvati a purpose in life. From not being keenly interested in academics, Parvati now aspires to become a police officer so that, in her words these kinds of injustices do not continue’. Savitha, her other sister, though not part of the intervention, was another source of inspiration for Parvati. Savitha travelled four hours each way and slept for just five hours a day, doing all the household work, so she could complete her B.Sc in Nursing. Parvati credited many of the activities conducted in Samata particularly, her participation as a CAB leader, in bolstering her confidence and raising her aspirations.

Involving the PRIs and Other Stakeholders

The ORWs initiated multiple outreach activities including making PRIs and other Stakeholders aware of Samata and its scope; conversations emphasizing the value of secondary education for girls, facilitating and initiating community discussions around delaying the age of marriage; provisions of tuitions for girls who are at the risk of dropping out and gender-sensitivity training. Many Gram Panchayats have provided materials required for schools like bags, notebooks, pens and other equipment to girl students, which has encouraged them to go the school. The Zilla Panchayats in collaboration with the Gram Panchayats and the schools have conducted preparatory examinations for the class X students in three rounds to help students prepare for the board examinations. The Panchayats have also provided material support to the intervention activities, and along with the community members, facilitated street plays organized by the AGs to raise awareness around key issues by contributing towards logistics, food and transportation. This allows for co-creation and collaboration of the Samata intervention and for a sense of ownership for the community and the local government.

An important financial intervention by the gram panchayats includes earmarking 5% of the total revenue collected specifically for the education of children within their jurisdictions, which have been well-utilized in 2015 – 16 and allowed both poor girls and boys to continue their education. For example, in one of the intervention villages, the PRI members had arranged buses for a number of girls who had finished Upper Primary School and were at the risk of dropping out because their families could not afford to send them to the High School due to the cost of transportation. Under the MNREGA scheme, the Gram Panchayat in the same village had spent four lakh rupees to build the school compound, and funds of up to five lakh rupees had been earmarked for modernizing toilets. When asked why they thought this heavy investment in school infrastructure was a good idea, the Gram Panchayat members responded by saying that they believed these are essential investments which protect the health of children and ensured that girls kept returning to school. The gram panchayats were also actively involved in the gender-sensitive action plans prepared by the schools. Schools’ requests for facilities, such as toilets, clean drinking water source and others were addressed satisfactorily by the gram panchayats, suggesting that the spill-over effects of this program are likely to go beyond the goals of retention and into improving overall school facilities for children.

The introduction of the Right to Education Act (RTE) which mandates 100% enrolment at the Primary level, and the government emphasis on reducing drop-outs, implies that there is a statutory obligation on the SDMC and PRI members to ensure that AGs continue in school. The ORWs facilitate the discharge of this obligation by reminding them of it, thus creating systems of accountability, in parallel with the state. Instances of gram panchayat interventions that have helped retain girls include, procurement of bus passes, notebooks, school fees and school bags from educational grants. The PRI members were important stakeholders because, in instances where the ORWs found it difficult to persuade parents to let their daughters continue in school, the PRI members were able to influence parents to delay marriages. This is effective because PRI members are also residents of the village, often are related to the families in question, and may have more leverage than the ORW with the families.

Impact on Schools and Teachers

One of the schools we visited, a government school in Adgal had two Safety Committee meetings. An important outcome of these meetings was a suggestion box, where students could anonymously drop their suggestions. One of the suggestions concerned the improvement of toilets and was being seriously considered.

Teacher training on gender-sensitivity has made teachers more reflective on the nature of their own interactions with students. While earlier they paid more attention to male students, now they also engage with the girls. For instance, they are creating more platforms so that girls’ leadership skills can be nurtured by nominating an equal number of girls and boys to the school parliament, a positive and tangible outcome of this intervention. It should also be noted that some of the more intangible outcomes of the intervention are reliant on the enthusiasm and hard work of teachers. For example, the Social Studies teacher in Adgal had also made deliberate curricular changes, like the inclusion of prominent female historical and political figures and contemporary women such as the astronaut Kalpana Chawla, so that the girls have strong female role models. These are attempts to positively influence the hidden curriculum, much of which tends to be gender inequitable and impacts the ways in which girls and boys internalise gender roles (Beliappa and Ghosh 2015). For example, the Adgal school now has more images of female figures, such as Mother Teresa, Akka Mahadevi (one of the earliest female poets in Kannada), Lakshmibai, the Queen of Jhansi, adorning the walls of classrooms.

More overt disparities, such as girls missing out on school meals or eating after the boys because of the limited number of plates, have been rectified through the donation of more plates by Purnima, the Hindi language teacher in Adgal School. She was particularly supportive of Samata and girls’ education because of her own personal experience of having survived very difficult childhood circumstances but managing to complete a Master’s degree in Education.

The gender-sensitivity training has given teachers the impetus to engage with parents to reduce drop-outs. After initial conversations with parents of the girls they believe are at the risk of dropping out, they follow-up after three months to reinforce retention of the girls. In the previous academic year, there have been at least five instances where repeated reinforcements had been necessary and successful.

Impact on SDMC Members

The gender-sensitivity training with the SDMC members enabled them to map out their role in promoting safety in schools, working with the community and thus preventing drop-outs. The SDMC members at Adgal report that certain traditional beliefs that they held, for example, that girls should not be sent to school post-puberty, have changed. They also try to visit at least one family of a girl attending school each week to ensure that they continue sending their daughters to school. Teachers report that the SDMC had been crucial in building bridges with the community. As Thimayya, one of the uncles of Mala, a girl who actively stopped her own marriage with his and her CAB group’s support, remarked, Education is very important; if you have it everyone will give you respect. If you put your left thumb everywhere, no one will give you importance. Plus, people will take you for a ride’.

Some challenges still remain; for example, teachers reported that girls miss school often because of family weddings. Despite the efforts of schools, sometimes parents solemnize engagements of girls, even if they agree to delay marriages and cohabitation until later if they feel that the alliance is particularly worthy. One of the SDMC members Vijaylaxmi, who was working as an ASHA was earlier not convinced of the value of keeping a girl in school post-puberty. She has a daughter who is currently in class X. After her induction into the SDMC of the government school in Adgal Village, and her interactions with the ORWs, exposure to gender-sensitivity and safety plans, her perceptions have changed. In particular, the frank discussions with the ORWs on the negative impacts of early marriage, something she had earlier witnessed as part of her work as an ASHA but had not had the chance to discuss and reflect on adequately until her inclusion into the program, have had a positive impact on her. She has not only encouraged her daughter to continue attending school but has also been trying to persuade neighbours and relatives in her hamlet to not get their daughters engaged or married early. She has decided that she will wait until her daughter is 18 to get her married. However, this was a hard-won battle. Her own brothers were not only unsupportive, they actively argued and fought with her. They tried various pressure tactics and emotional blackmail by not visiting her and ostracising her entire family by not communicating with her. However, Vijaylaxmi didn’t buckle. She had the support of her husband and her interactions with the ORWs and involvement with Samata strengthened her resolve.

Limits to Transformation of Gender Norms

Despite the successes of this intervention in terms of attaining the programmatic goals, some challenges remain. In particular, there are limits to the transformation of gender norms, given that the political economy has not changed radically and the villages still continue to be deeply conservative. The discourses around appropriate sexual conduct and relations indicate that girls and boys often equated a respectful relationship between sexes in terms of a sibling relationship. This is not surprising given that notions of platonic friendships are entirely absent, and any sustained interaction with the opposite sex invites gossip, risking reputations and crucially resulting in early marriage and/​or girls being pulled out of school (Bhagvatheeswaran et al., 2015; Chakraborty, 2015; Iyer, 2018).11 Therefore, girls are extremely wary of any attention that they receive from their male classmates and a respectful boy was defined as one who treated all women as his sisters. Therefore, relationships couched within the affective relationships of fictive kin are the safest way for girls to interact with boys without inviting censure from either their teachers, families, or neighbours.

We found that these perceptions were reinforced by boys in the intervention group. In order to assess whether they understood that positive attention towards girls took the form of compliments and negative attention the form of sexual harassment, we asked boys if they ever complimented’ their female classmates, using the English word compliment’. They reported not complimenting their classmates, because they felt that this would make the girls feel uncomfortable and their actions would be construed negatively. The girls in the leadership groups reported discouraging compliments because it indicated more than an academic interest in them, which they felt would have had severely negative consequences for them, with parents pulling them out of school.

Since we were intrigued by this discourse, we continued to use the theme of positive male attention, to ask boys whether they complimented their sisters. On further probing, the boys reported that while they complimented their sisters, they did not compliment their classmates, because their teachers encouraged gender segregation and gender-segregated behaviour, for instance, asking them to not talk to or sit next to their female classmates. The boys were able to grasp the differences between positive attention and harassment by reporting that eve teasing implied that one is devaluing girls because that type of attention is unwanted, complimenting someone means one is valuing her. Boys welcomed the idea of being friends with a girl and a thirteen-year-old boy in the FGD said that it was possible for a girl and a boy to be friends if you look after her with love (priti) and affection (vatsalya)’. The latter is a term often used to denote affection in a sibling relationship, again bounding such relationships within respectable kinship ties.

Another line of discussion which we pursued involved popular culture. We asked boys to list their favourite heroes and heroines. A number of popular Kannada heroes and heroines were listed and in the context of one of the heroines, the word shila was used by a fourteen-year-old boy, Devendra. Shila is a Kannada word that implies good character or a good woman’. The conversation then veered from actors to people and many boys in the FGD group started commenting that they liked girls who were good’. Devendra using the English word purity’ suggested that girls should not be allowed out late because otherwise their purity’ will get affected, implying risks of either pre-marital sex or rape. Many of the boys in the FGD group seemed to reflect the dominant gender ideologies using the rubric of bharatiya sanskriti or Indian culture. When we pressed them on what constituted bharatiya sanskriti’, they reiterated that these terms meant that the girls had shila’ (purity), a cyclical argument that nevertheless indicated how the power of these hegemonic ideas of masculinity and femininity manifest themselves.

In our FGDs, we wanted to understand the boys’ attitudes towards women’s mobility; we asked them whether it would be permissible for their sisters to stay out for as long as they had that evening since it was after school that they were invited to join our discussion at 6 PM. They said that their sisters would not be allowed because it is not part of Indian culture and it is a question of her shila’. We then asked them what they thought of the two female facilitators who were asking them questions at 7 PM during a dark winter night. Did they believe we had bad characters by the same logic? They said no, but caveated their response saying it was safe for us to be out because we were out in a group and importantly accompanied by our male colleague. Thus, not only were we in safe hands but by being allowed to be chaperoned, we had not transgressed any normative behaviours.

We continued this line of questioning and asked the boys what traits they believed characterised a good or a bad woman or man; they were immediate in their response in singling out Devdasis as examples of bad women. We then asked what makes Devdasis bad, they said her shila’ is not good. So, we asked them to think about men who visited Devdasis, would they be considered good or bad? This was an unexpected question for the group and made them pause as if they had not considered this at all. Instead of answering our question, the group of young boys reiterated that a good woman was someone who adjusts’ to any family situation while men who were drunk were cited as examples of bad men.

The concept of nambike’ a Kannada word implying trust/​faith was invoked several times by the group and deemed very important in intimate relationships. We asked them to respond to a number of scenarios, one where a woman left home without saying where she was going. They said that they would try to call her first, and if there is nambike’, then it would be fine, if not, there would be fights between the couple. They thought that a woman should adjust to whatever the situation might be. So, we probed further by asking them what if the husbands came home drunk. They said that in a family these things do happen and that she should convince him to not drink and if she tries, she can stop him. We then presented a more complex situation, asking them what would happen if a man came home drunk and beat his wife. What should she do? They said she should try to convince him and make him change his habits. When we asked what if she can’t, they replied that if she really tried, honestly tried, she would be able to. They used the word adjust’, so we asked to what extent should they adjust’ and the response was unambiguous – until death.

Some of the boys demonstrated a deep understanding of power in intimate relations. One of the activities used in the intervention involves a game of tug of war to make them aware of the impacts of their physical power, to drive home the point that physical prowess, should be used for good and perhaps potentially reduce instances of physical violence in intimate relationships. In our discussions with boys, we asked them what they believed were the traits of an ideal partner. There was a long list, such as a good character, adjusting, loving, caring and one other trait was mentioned – age. Many in the FGDs reported that a 5‑year gap between partners was ideal. We asked them why they thought so, a thirteen-year-old boy responded, I can ask my wife where she is going when she leaves home, but she can’t ask me the same if she is younger than me’. While this statement could be seen as indicative of the limits of the transformation of gendered norms in the intervention, it is also indicative of the fact that the program forces them to reflect through the combination of mentoring, embedding gender-sensitivity and gender-equity in the Parivartan curriculum and interactions with mentors and the group leaders of the girls.

One of the questions we asked the boys to understand how internalised these ideals of hegemonic masculinity had become and whether there was any shift as a result of the intervention, was whether they would marry a widow. Remarriages of widows especially in the Hindu SC community that these boys belong to are still extremely rare and widows continue to be stigmatized. In the group of 12 boys, just one boy Basava of Class IX who had completed the training said that he would marry a widow if he fell in love with her. We immediately asked how he would tackle family opposition, he said if there was opposition, he would go against his family and marry her. We were not convinced, so we asked, what if she had children. And additionally, was older than him? Each time Basava responded in the affirmative. We asked him what strategies he would use to convince his parents, he said he would persuade them using the framework of manav adhikar or human rights. Despite the fact that he was the most gender equitable in his view, there was nothing special or different about him in terms of his social profile. He was of the same age as the group and like 75% of them had completed the gender-sensitivity training. What set him apart was that he was more vocal and more reflective than the rest, clearly impressive and perhaps emblematic of the qualitative success of the intervention.12

The discussion around disempowering gender norms highlights a number of key issues: firstly, overt harassment of girls has reduced because of the obvious nature of this violence as well as the program’s emphasis on its reduction including targeted activities; however, symbolic violence in the form of discourse that reflects patriarchal and heteronormative beliefs and singles out sex workers as bad’ people and reinforces gender norms related to mobility and gendered roles, continues. While boys had grasped the concept of sexual differentiation, they were still grappling with the socially constructed nature of gender. They said that men who dressed in ways considered feminine, such as using accessories or nail polish were chakkas or transgendered. Secondly, norm change is an extremely slow process and needs to be supported not just by the curriculum, outreach and counselling sessions with parents and teachers, but also requires adults to change, for instance, teachers need to become more sensitive and gender-equitable in their approach, recognizing the need for and supporting friendly interactions between girls and boys. Thirdly, discourses around ideal gender roles continue to reflect the norms not only for rural Karnataka but also for India. For instance, the expectation that women will adjust to any situation in the marital home, is not just limited to rural and less literate parts of India, but also a widely held view in urban and among the educated classes in India.


In this paper, we have attempted to highlight both the possibilities and the limitations of attempting a transformation of gender norms in Bijapur and Bagalkot in rural North Karnataka and the lessons that can be drawn for similar programs. While preliminary findings from Samata seem promising with the potential of turning progressive adults out of adolescent children, the fact remains that the larger context continues to be regressive and inimical to the interests of young girls and also gender-sensitive boys. The boys reported wanting more space for healthy interactions with girls, but sadly in a deeply conservative society, the emotional needs of adolescent boys and girls are permanently suppressed. The only interactions possible is through sexual harassment or none at all. Hegemonic expressions of masculinity continue and any alternative expressions are deeply stigmatized with normal rituals of courtship or friendships forged during these ages, mostly absent.

In consonance with some of the arguments made by Sen and others at the beginning of this essay, we observe that embedding notions of gender-equity within the curriculum for both boys and girls has had a deep impact on their cognition and processing of gendered lives, including their own. This enhances their capabilities in responding to and resisting instances of gender-based violence. We find that the process of reflection has begun with an understanding of the dynamics of power, particularly among boys and girls, but unless there is a concomitant change in the larger context, so that school spaces are no longer gender-segregated, so that girls are no longer forced to feel ashamed if they accidentally brush against a male classmate13 and teachers, and parents, and communities are willing and able to set aside their deeply patriarchal notions of appropriate behaviours and roles for girls, programs like Samata may find limited success in ensuring greater social equity and gender justice.

As the examples illustrate, there are some rays of hope with a few parents able to see the value of girls’ education and risking social ostracism and familial strife to ensure that girls stay in schools longer. Projects like Samata have an especially important role to play in the cause of social justice since the beneficiaries of this project are the most marginalized and socially excluded population. Therefore, even small gains can be crucial in evening out, albeit in a limited fashion, historical social inequalities. It is heartening to see that the girls in this program are turning into confident and vocal young women, active in their communities by championing the cause of girls’ secondary education, in schools through their participation in school safety committees and also by working with the PRI institutions and are able to negotiate in a space that is typically hostile to women. We can safely argue that the girls in the program are emergent feminists; they are beginning to change, and; though this transformation is nascent and gradual these are auspicious tidings.


The authors would like to thank the team members of the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust (KHPT) in Dharwad, Bijapur and Bagalkot for facilitating this research undertaken during December 2015 – January 2016. They would like to acknowledge assistance from Priya Pillai, who was with KHPT at the time and Parinita Bhattacharjee (KHPT) for their valuable inputs. Thanks are also due to the Azim Premji University, Chattopadhyay’s home institution at the time of this fieldwork for allowing her the time to undertake this research and to her current institution, Srishti, for giving her the time to continue work on this paper. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Faculty Colloquium at Srishti in October 2017 and benefited from the discussions generated at the time.


Sreeparna Chattopadhyay is currently a member of the Faculty in the School of Advanced Studies and Research, Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. She is a cultural anthropologist with an A.M. and PhD from Brown University, and a B.A. in Economics (Hons) from St. Xavier’s College, Bombay. She has work experience spanning over a decade in both pure and applied settings including academia, government and the non-profit sector in India, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

H.S. Srikanta Murthy is Deputy Director, Programmes at Karnataka Health Promotion Trust (KHPT) with more than two decades of experience in the development sector. He currently leads the adolescent girls’ programme, Samata in Northern Karnataka. He has also worked for Myrada, Green Foundation and for the Government of Karnataka. He has postgraduate degrees in Sociology and Human Resource Management from the Mysore University.


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  1. A longitudinal primarily qualitative study in Bangladesh on the benefits of formal education for sex workers and their children found that completion of secondary school education was a route into greater social mobility for sex workers’ children with just 1 out of 30 students in the study dropping out of school to join sex work (Shohel et al 2012)↩︎

  2. A longitudinal primarily qualitative study in Bangladesh on the benefits of formal education for sex workers and their children found that completion of secondary school education was a route into greater social mobility for sex workers’ children with just 1 out of 30 students in the study dropping out of school to join sex work (Shohel et al 2012)↩︎

  3. The framework derives from the specific political economy in Northern Karnataka where many adolescent girls have a heightened vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and a diminished quality of life because they are forced by structural factors to discontinue school to enter either marriage or sex work, or to become Devadasis, ending up as sex workers eventually (O’Neil et al 2004). Early marriage naturally fuels early childbearing with up to 8.4% of girls becoming first-time mothers between 15 to 19 years of age (DLHS 2008). It is important to note that systemic barriers to educational disadvantage and disempower girls in many communities in rural India, but adolescent girls from SC and ST families in rural Northern Karnataka are exceedingly disadvantaged by the tradition of underage marriage and the system of dedicating young girls to become sex workers.↩︎

  4. RCTs are a type of impact evaluation that uses the principle of random assignment to allocate resources between groups and then measure the impact of the intervention including the size of the impact. RCTs have in recent times become the gold standard in economics in conclusively assessing the impacts of interventions (Source: https://www.povertyactionlab.org/research-resources/introduction-evaluations)↩︎

  5. Although the legal age of marriage is 18, it is fairly common for girls to get married much earlier in these communities either for social or financial reasons.↩︎

  6. These are run by the government twice a week wherein, the girls are supposed to get six sanitary pads in a month (although the supply has often been a problem); their height and weight is measured; and folic acid supplements are provided if the haemoglobin levels are below 12.↩︎

  7. One of the key drivers in the dropping-out of girls from secondary education is sexual harassment on the way to and from school. Samata identifies and recruits adolescent boys into the Parivartan curriculum who are actively harassing girls or have engaged in other kinds of high-risk behaviour in the neighbourhood, to encourage boys to respect girls and acknowledge their rights and also works with male mentors of boys and facilitate their coordination with ORWs for girls to tackle street harassment of girls.↩︎

  8. Parivartan Plus is based on an intervention called Parivartan (change) devised by the International Council for Research on Women (ICRW) that aims to reduce gender-based violence through cricket. The program tries to replace negative norms around violence and masculinity with positive norms that increases awareness around disrespectful and harmful behaviour such as abuse, as well as develops capacities in young boys to become more assertive and speak up when witnessing abuse and promote gender-equitable behaviours. For more information see https://www.icrw.org/research-programs/parivartan-coaching-boys-into-men/↩︎

  9. Parivartan Plus is based on an intervention called Parivartan (change) devised by the International Council for Research on Women (ICRW) that aims to reduce gender-based violence through cricket. The program tries to replace negative norms around violence and masculinity with positive norms that increase awareness around disrespectful and harmful behaviour, such as abuse, as well as develops capacities in young boys to become more assertive and speak up when witnessing abuse and promote gender-equitable behaviours. For more information see https://www.icrw.org/research-programs/parivartan-coaching-boys-into-men↩︎

  10. All names have been changed to protect the identity of the girls and ORWs who participated in the Samata study.↩︎

  11. Iyer’s study in a co-educational secondary school in urban Delhi revealed different patterns of negotiating gender norms. Perhaps given the urban context and less strict forms of control over girls’ mobility in this context, students were able to develop non-platonic relationships with romantic possibilities that did not have to be couched within modes of respectable kinship in the form of sibling or rakhi relationships between boys and girls. The situation in rural North Karnataka is very different due to more enhanced forms of social control and the higher penalty that girls have to pay if they forge romantic relationships with their male peers.↩︎

  12. While it may be too early to celebrate these successes, it is also the case that softer outcomes like these, are not amenable to assessment through methods, such as RCTs and therefore ethnographic engagement and a long-term involvement with the program is necessary to qualitatively assess whether gender norms are shifting in a more positive direction. Our assessment suggests that this is the case.↩︎

  13. One of the groups during an FGD with a CAB session described an incident during which a group of girls had been waiting inside an HT’s room to speak to him; a group of boys instead of waiting their turn, entered the small space and the two groups ended up jostling and pushing each other. In this instance instead of reprimanding the boys for their impatience, the HT ended up reprimanding the girls for ‘not giving way’ to the boys. The girls on reflection felt this was unfair since they were there first and the boys should have waited. This type of reflection and feminist consciousness is a good sign, despite the fact that the context still continues to be sexist in more ways than one.↩︎