Opinion | What are our teenage girls made of?
A landmark survey finds they have a game plan that goes beyond marriage
When the 1,000 interviewers—all women, mostly in the age group 18-25—knocked on 73,000 doors from Kargil to Kanyakumari, to ask if they could speak to any teenage girls in the household, they were often met with incredulity that anyone cared about what went on in their daughters’ minds.
“Sometimes the village sarpanch would say, ‘Why do you want to speak to them? I can answer on their behalf’," says Rohini Mukherjee, chief policy officer at Naandi Foundation and the woman who was in charge of Nanhi Kali’s landmark Teen Age Girls (TAG) Report.
The foundation co-manages Project Nanhi Kali that has educated 300,000 girls to class X. Yet feedback from alumni suggested girls needed hand-holding for a few more years after they cleared this milestone and the survey was a means to get more information about their lives.
To draw out the teenagers was challenging. They were most comfortable speaking to young women, and often required warm-up time before they answered questions. Mukherjee says the survey, conducted in 12 languages, was designed in such a way that eavesdropping family members would get bored of the basic early queries and leave the girls alone by the time the more emotionally-charged questions about their aspirations were asked (this is the section I’ve chosen to focus on here).
There were always two surveyors and while one interviewed the girl, the other distracted the family as she set up the stadiometer, weight scale and equipment to measure levels of haemoglobin. Probably because the surveyors were strangers to the girls and because of the public nature of the interview, it was a struggle to get any statistically relevant data on their safety/the incidence of abuse. Yet, the just-out results give a ringside view into the hopes and realities of teenage girls aged 13-19.
We already know some facts about teenage girls and women aged 15-49 thanks to other, mostly government-run surveys: Parents—both urban and rural—continue to show a preference for sons; women are dropping out of the workforce at an alarming rate; nearly half the women don’t have freedom of mobility; every second woman of reproductive age is anaemic; and so many grapple with health issues such as open defecation and lack of proper access to menstrual hygiene. More than a third of the women who commit suicide in the world are Indian, and a significant number of them are under 40, one recent study found.
Yet no survey has taken a good look into the minds of our teenage girls, and some of this survey’s key findings are heartening. Of the 73,000 girls surveyed, 80.6% are studying, 95.8% are unmarried, 70% wish to pursue higher studies (in older girls aged between 16-19, this figure is higher at 76.5%) and 74.3% wish to work after their studies and have a specific career in mind. “The fact that the majority are not married in that age group is a huge, very welcome surprise and I was really happy to see that," says Mukherjee. Previous surveys of women—including married women in their 20s—have always found a high incidence of child marriage.
While the percentage of girls studying decreases with every year—at 13, 92.3% are studying, but at 19, only 65.5% are still studying—it’s clear that teenage girls have a game plan that goes beyond marriage. Over 70% of the girls said they would not like to get married before 21 (this was 67.7% in rural areas and 86.3% in urban areas).
Becoming a teacher continues to be the most socially accepted career for an Indian woman. That’s probably why, when asked what career they would like to pursue, a third of the girls picked teacher; 11.5% said they wanted to be a tailor; 10.6% girls said doctor; 7.6% said police or Armed Forces; and 6.2% said nurse.
And yes, teenage girls already know what they are up against. Almost every second girl thinks boys have more opportunities for education and jobs than they do. The burden of the household continues to rest on girls’ shoulders and maybe that’s how it should be, they are taught to believe. Many of them still haven’t learned, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it in Dear Ijeawele or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions that “the knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina". Only 20% girls think boys/men can do any housework. Some 23% of teenage girls have access to a mobile phone; 37% to a bicycle and 10.8% to a motorized vehicle. Most of them struggle with what the survey termed “new age skills", such as travelling alone on a journey more than 4 hours and asking a male stranger for directions/help.
Health indicators continue to be abysmal for girls (I won’t repeat them here except to say every second Indian girl is underweight and anaemic). Using nine indicators from the survey, researchers created a TAG index and ranked states. Here, your informed guess is as good as their results—Kerala is the best state for teenage girls, Uttar Pradesh the worst. It took a year and a half to fine-tune the questionnaire. Along the way, says Naandi Foundation CEO Manoj Kumar, they had to throw out “the syntax and grammar we create for the 1%." Most girls stared blankly when they were asked about their dreams. “If we asked them what’s your idea of leisure, they didn’t know what to respond. They work all the time," he says. When interviewers clarified that they were asking what the girls did when they had nothing else to do, the girls would reply: “How can there be nothing else to do?"
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.
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