The girls who took over a town in rural India
Development experts around the world are increasingly focused on girls as a linchpin of economic and social progress. In Thennamadevi, though, teen girls have taken action on their own, improving their village with a speed that would make any official envious.
VILUPPURAM, INDIA—Girl power is blooming across India. Clubs intended to boost adolescent girls’ sense of worth are sprouting in remote villages. Women feeling empowered in local politics are acting as mentors and making a priority of improving the future for one of India’s most long-neglected populations.
But there’s girl power, and then there’s Thennamadevi.
In Thennamadevi, a village sheltered by banana trees and nestled amid rice paddies and sugar cane fields in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state, girls have moved beyond discussions of the challenges they face in India. They’re taking action. Bold action.
Frustrated by the many do-nothing men who seemed more interested in turning sugar cane into moonshine than in improving village life, the teenage girls have organized around their professed goal of making Thennamadevi the best community in their district.
The result is that in less than two years the girls have done everything from creating a 150-book library to successfully lobbying local authorities for a bus stop. The objective there: to cut down on the time girls (and boys) have to spend walking through dark and sometimes dangerous fields to get to and from school.
“After going to our club, I know my rights as a child and as a girl, but it seems what’s different about our village is that we didn’t stop there,” says Kousalya Radakrishnan, the Thennamadevi girls club president. “We now understand our role in our community, and we are acting on that.”
Young Kousalya, even though still in high school, already sounds like a seasoned politician. She sums up her role in the local girls’ movement with clarity and simplicity: to figure out how to deliver on the hopes and dreams that bubble up from the two dozen 14- to 18-year-olds in the club.
All of which has also helped make her into a minor celebrity and role model here. As she steps out of a cramped community center and onto a dirt street to lead one of the club’s signature rallies, dramatically standing out in a sea-green dress, she is swarmed by young girls with pigtails and wide grins. “We’re making things better not just for girls,” she says, “but for everybody in our village.”
And maybe, she might have said, for the world’s largest democracy.
Around the world, development experts are increasingly focusing on girls as the key to fostering progress in developing countries. For more than two decades, aid groups and international nongovernmental organizations have centered their efforts on trying to reduce poverty and improve global health for women. The rationale has been that by unlocking a rural woman’s entrepreneurial spirit – helping her, for example, to not just tend her field but to sell her own produce – the woman’s entire family will receive a boost. Similarly, improving maternal health and helping a woman space out her pregnancies will enhance prosperity.
Numerous African and South Asian countries have seen extreme poverty rates fall and national health standards improve as a result of a focus on women. But more recently development experts have honed their efforts even further, zeroing in on girls as the linchpin of sustained economic and social progress in developing countries.
“We know that if girls stay in school, if they don’t marry and have babies early, and if they are empowered to pursue dreams their mothers never could have imagined, they improve not just their own lives but are a force for growth and progress in their communities and more broadly in their countries,” says Geeta Rao Gupta, a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation and an international expert in women’s empowerment. “When girls learn to replace time-honored limitations with ‘I can be whatever I want to be,’ it opens new paths forward for the girls and for everyone around them.”
In many developing countries, girls face two starkly divergent paths: one fettered by gender inequality and cut short by early childbearing and the other offering personal fulfillment and economic improvement that benefit families and nations. If the second path is closed off, experts say, that’s a large chunk of a country’s economic growth potential that will never be tapped.
“Countries cannot end poverty if girls are unable to make a safe and healthy transition from adolescence to adulthood and become productive members of their communities and nations,” the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said in its 2016 “State of World Population” report.
The UNFPA report focused on the world’s 60 million 10-year-old girls, noting that the educational and other opportunities available to pre-adolescent girls and the “flurry of life-changing events” on their horizon will go a long way in determining many developing countries’ prospects.
“We’ve seen that intervening with girls around 10 years old makes a great deal of sense, because they still have many options before them and they aren’t yet facing the pressures that come in many cultures with adolescence,” says Dr. Gupta. “Reversing a girl’s trajectory after 13 is often very difficult, especially if she’s had little education and she’s married early and will soon be expected to have babies.”
Pointing out that worldwide 32 million girls of primary-school age are not in school, the report noted that “without quality education the 10-year-old girl will not acquire skills to earn a better income and find decent work.” The ability of countries to ensure access to a primary and secondary education and to tackle stubborn problems such as gender discrimination, it concluded, “will shape the degree to which this generation [of girls] is able to maximize its potential and become drivers of positive change at the local and global levels.”
Some countries are embracing the girl-power movement – at least on paper.
Count India among them. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the country has launched a visible public awareness campaign under the slogan “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” – “Save the Girl, Educate the Girl.”
Around New Delhi and in cities across the country, billboards feature girls wearing school uniforms or playing carefree games outdoors, with slogans such as “Every girl is precious” or to educate a girl is to “strengthen the nation.” The campaign is part of national efforts to end female infanticide and child marriage and to stress the importance of keeping girls in school. Yet slogans are one thing; changing a culture is another.
“All of this activity and national communication around the girl child is pretty robust, and that’s certainly positive,” says Gupta. “But implementation of the programs behind the slogan remains a challenge, and then there’s the underlying issue that is more important than any of the rest of it: that girls are just valued less, largely because they carry less economic value.”
Not in Thennamadevi, though. Not for a handful of idealistic and indomitable teens.
Kousalya was like many of the young girls in the village. She was headed down a path with tightly prescribed expectations and boundaries.
Her father, a fruit seller who like many other fathers in the village was prone to drinking, didn’t want her to go to school after age 12. A daughter should be at home, he said, not going off to a new school that would be “mixed,” where she’d be around boys.
But her father died an alcoholic, and Kousalya insisted on going to school, enlisting the support of a women’s nongovernmental organization in nearby Viluppuram, the district capital. Now she’s studying physics, wants to go to college, and plans to eventually become a college professor.
“We’ve come a long way from the first days of the club when we went door to door to convince parents that it was a good idea to let their daughters come out in the evenings to meet with other girls,” says Kousalya, standing before rows of purple-draped tables in Thennamadevi’s activity center. “Experiencing that progress has shown all the girls that they can do a lot with their lives.”
Others confirm that the can-do spirit of the club has taught them that the future is boundless. Bharati Murugan grew up hearing “You are a female. You are not for studying and working,” she says. But that made her all the more determined to avoid her mother’s fate as a child bride. When the club was formed, she was one of the first to join and is now the treasurer.
Standing alongside the bicycle she cherishes because it gives her an exhilarating sense of independence, Bharati says that working to improve life in the village has taught her that girls really can accomplish a lot, especially when they collaborate. Her involvement with the club has also strengthened her determination to one day join India’s civil service, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).
“I made a sign for my house that says ‘Bharati IAS!,’ and every morning I proclaim those words aloud. My family laughs at me, but I don’t care,” she says, pulling on one of her two long braids. “I’m going to make it come true, just as the girls of Thennamadevi are making true our dream of building a model village!”
Indeed, the girls have been bringing about civic improvements with a speed that would make any government bureaucrat envious. They badgered district leaders with letters and meetings until lighting was provided for the village’s two unpaved streets. Tired of confronting village men loitering and drinking around the community toilet when they needed to use it, the girls started a campaign to install commodes in individual homes. That effort aims to address two issues at once: the village’s chronic problem of drunken and sometimes harassing men and the broader national health challenge of ending “open defecation.”
They’ve also targeted issues specific to them as adolescent girls. They persuaded district health officials to stock modern sanitary napkins in the nearest clinic as a replacement for traditional cloth rags. In a country where child marriage remains a national scourge (despite a law prohibiting the marriage of girls under age 18), club members have publicly pledged not just to renounce the practice for themselves but to come to the rescue of anyone they know being pushed into an early union.
Through all the activism, the girls are developing vital leadership skills. Malarvizhi Pandurangan says the girls club’s successes have taught her that organizing and speaking up works, so she’s taken her advocacy to her technical secondary school, where she’s deepening her math skills and learning about electrical circuitry.
“I tell the girls in my class about all the services our club has brought to my village, and I say we can improve our school in the same way if we work together,” says Malarvizhi, standing in one of the spare classrooms of the Thiruvalluvar Technical Institute.
Outside, separate classes of girls and boys assemble on the dusty ground under the shade of thin-leaved trees to study for upcoming exams. Inside, girls whisper and giggle as Malarvizhi shares with a visitor how she’s organizing her classmates to lobby local businesses to provide the school with better equipment.
Thiruvalluvar’s principal, Vazha Jayachandran, attests to Malarvizhi’s leadership, and adds that all 40 girls at the institute are helping to infuse the school with more energy and academic rigor.
“Five years ago we didn’t even have girls here,” he notes, “and now they are almost always the strongest in our subjects and produce the best results.”
What’s remarkable about the girls of Thennamadevi isn’t just what they’ve accomplished. It’s what they’ve accomplished given where they’re from.
The Viluppuram district, with its web of rail connections, is a hub of child trafficking and sex trafficking. The district records some of India’s highest levels of child abuse, according to local officials and NGOs.
“People don’t easily talk about these problems, making addressing them all the more difficult,” says Sathiya Babu, managing trustee of Viluppuram’s office of Scope India, which shelters runaway and trafficked kids and works with local communities to improve children’s living conditions.
“But we’re finding that the kids, and the girls especially, are determined to build better lives and are no longer accepting the traditional limitations their communities, even their own parents, are putting on them,” he says.
In many ways, Thennamadevi is a typical village for the area, Dr. Babu says, but in others – both good and bad – it stands out.
“Most of the men there are alcoholics – that’s not so unusual – but one result is that 90 families in the village are run by widows. That’s a situation that aggravates existing challenges in the area,” he adds, “from child abuse and runaways to child marriage. A mother who can’t support all her children may see the girls as either a financial burden or even as a source of income” – for example through a dowry, even though dowries are outlawed in India, he says.
Still, Babu notes, Thennamadevi’s girls are unusual because in less than two years they have taken their club from a venue for discussing problems to one for taking action.
“Last year the girls there requested that the club organize a meeting where they could learn how to petition the government,” he says. “These are girls who want change.”
Yet for all the national focus on girls and the district’s efforts to improve their lives, there’s evidence that the long-held prejudices against girls remain strong.
S.K. Lalitha, Viluppuram’s social welfare director, notes that the district’s female-to-male birth ratio actually declined over the past decade, despite sustained national and state campaigns against sex selection and female infanticide. The 2016 family health survey showed that in the previous year 819 girls were born for every 1,000 boys – 777 girls for every 1,000 boys in rural areas.
“Those numbers are alarming, but they back up what I hear so many mothers say, that there is no security today for girls and that life for girls is getting harder,” Ms. Lalitha says. “That’s one reason the positive example of girls like those in Thennamadevi is so important.”
Other clubs are being set up, too. Across the country in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, UNFPA and UNICEF have teamed up with local NGOs to create a network of hundreds of “kishoris,” or adolescent girls clubs, in some of the conservative state’s most remote areas.
On a sunbaked day in the village of Lamba Kalan, girls from 10 to 19 years old hear from one of the older members of her marriage at age 5. Another tells of being married off when she was 9 because her father was ill and the family needed money. Both girls pledge to “never allow my daughter to marry as a child!”
Then several girls put on a play whose story line in their area remains more fact than fiction: It’s about an impending child marriage. After the teacher in the play tells a mother that marrying off her daughter before she’s 18 is illegal, the mother confronts her husband: “I want our daughter to be a teacher or a doctor, not to get married and have babies so young as I did!”
The father’s retort is one many of Lamba Kalan’s girls say rings familiar: “If our daughter gets too much education, we will have trouble later finding her a suitable husband,” he says. “A girl’s place is at home, and then marrying and going to live in her husband’s home.”
Then comes the closing line from the mother, a line that draws enthusiastic applause from the girls club members: “No, that’s no longer true. Life for our daughters is changing!”
The enthusiasm of mothers for their daughters’ accomplishments is in fact no longer just theater, at least in places like Thennamadevi.
Standing on the stoop of her home on a village side street, Maragatham Radakrishnan hugs her daughter Kousalya and marvels at her confidence and determination.
“I never could have imagined a daughter of mine accomplishing even half of what Kousalya has done,” she says, beaming. Having never been to school herself, Ms. Radakrishnan says her biggest dream had always been that her daughter would be able to get some education. And now here’s Kousalya getting that education – and leading a movement.
“I see her doing things for the village and helping the younger girls, and it makes me so proud,” she says. “That she can speak up like she does, it’s amazing to me. She’s becoming a leader.”