HARYANA, India — In 2014, Breakthrough India, an independent human-rights organization, launched a program to tackle gender discrimination throughout 150 schools in Haryana, one of India’s most gender-biased states.
A 2011 census showed that Haryana, a primarily agricultural state bordering Delhi in northern India, had the worst child-sex ratio in the country, with only 830 girls for every 1,000 boys. Recent policy changes have effectively countered these gender imbalances, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading a campaign to address Haryana’s sex ratio.
The overall number of females has climbed, but female feticide remains a widespread problem, reinforcing a still-wide demographic divide. Though sex-determination tests are illegal throughout India, an underground network of medical providers bypasses laws and 50,000 female fetuses are aborted each month.
“Girls are neglected in every aspect of life, even before birth,” said Sunita Menon, the director of curriculum, leadership and development for Breakthrough.
Male babies are riotously celebrated, with sweets handed out after they are born. Female infants, however, often come into the world already viewed as liabilities. As boys and girls advance in childhood, deep-seated patriarchal attitudes surrounding gender roles create stark differences. Girls are closely scrutinized and confined at home, saddled with household chores, while their brothers roam freely.
Into adulthood, the low sex ratio ensures that public spaces are dominated by men. With fewer women and a higher number of unmarried men, brides are trafficked into the state. The state has also seen a surge in crimes against women: in January, Haryana was rocked by a streak of six brutal rapes — four against minors, including a toddler — in less than a week.
“The reality in Haryana is terrible — the amount of domestic violence, women being trafficked, women being treated as sex slaves. It’s another world,” said Veenu Kakkar, a Delhi-based gender consultant and women’s rights activist. The devaluing of women begins at an early age. “Girls come from completely aimless and dreamless childhoods, and then are expected to be subservient.”
The after-school gender awareness youth program that Breakthrough devised — “Taaron ki Toli,” or “Legion of Stars” — has emerged as a rare success story in a battleground state for gender relations. In partnership with the Haryana Ministry of Education and Save the Children, Breakthrough developed a curriculum for 12- to 15-year-olds that was taught in 45-minute sessions every two to three weeks. It involved games, discussions and activities that sought to challenge gendered prejudices and promote equality between the sexes.
“A lot of boys and men are also fed up now too,” said Kakkar. “They don’t want to be this masculine male who needs to give up his seat for a woman, even if he’s not feeling well, who has to go out and sexually harass a woman to prove his masculinity. Men are also looking out for some change now.”
The program, which began in 2012 and is now expanding, was assessed in a recently released evaluation carried out by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a global center focused on reducing poverty. Researchers there found that out of 14,000 participants interviewed both before and after the start of the program, discriminatory attitudes had been largely reversed, reflected in changed attitudes, behaviors and aspirations.
The evaluation centered on a set of statements and questions; for example, “Wives should be less educated than their husbands,” or “What is the highest level of education you would like to complete?”
Whereas before the program, boys and girls hewed to more stereotypical gender attitudes, alumni (now in their teens and early 20s) show more support for women’s education and paid employment outside the home and hold firmer beliefs in the ability of women to succeed beyond reproduction and household work.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the evaluation provided the encouraging conclusion that children surveyed who had been raised in families where gender discrimination was the norm now held the same perceptions as peers from progressive households.
“One of the reasons why we focused on this age group is that opinions and mind-sets are formed during this age, and it is the right time to create awareness on issues that will bear influence later,” said Sohini Bhattacharya, chief executive of Breakthrough India. “Our aim is to shift gender norms, so the earlier we can create awareness of gender inequality and discrimination and change unfavorable gender attitudes and perceptions among boys and girls, the better.”
Breakthrough wants to expand the youth program to other states in India, mainstreaming the sessions into a national education curriculum. It is devising programs for Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jaharkhand — north Indian states that also have high rates of gender discrimination and gender-based violence. “Introducing an intervention like ours can work nationally and globally,” Bhattacharya said.
Tannu Sharma, 15, was one of the Taaron ki Toli participants, attending sessions in her hometown of Sonipat, where gender segregation has always been a highly visible norm. “I feel like I’ve changed a lot through the course,” she said. “I got to understand that boys and girls are equal, at all stages of life.”
Formerly shy and reluctant to share her goals with her family and neighbors, Sharma now confidently states that she wants to be an engineer — one of the highest ambitions for schoolchildren in India.
“My friends and I, we always had dreams,” she said. “But we never felt like we could express them. Now we feel much more empowered to tackle whatever comes our way.”
Sharma’s 13-year-old brother, though not officially part of the program, has also been on the receiving end of gender awareness instruction through his sister. She insists that he help with her with the washing up.
Through their children, parents have also experienced a shift in attitudes.
“In the beginning, I didn’t understand this thing at all,” said Suresh Kumar, 55, Sharma’s father. “But slowly I started to understand that maybe this was something we needed to have a conversation about. Now, I’m much more able to let my daughter experience things on her own.”
Just several years ago, Kumar planned on getting Sharma married off as soon as she completed high school. Now, he encourages her to keep pursuing her education and supports whatever she decides to be.
“I look at my daughter the same way I do my son,” he said. “They both contribute to the household. They’re both my children.”
Ariel Sophia Bardi is a writer, researcher and photographer whose work looks at space and power in the Middle East and South Asia. She also works as a consultant in humanitarian and international development sectors. She has an M.A. from the University of Paris and a Ph.D. from Yale University. More of her work can be seen at www.arielsophiabardi.com.