Anuradha Bandyopadhyay was a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer for the Girls Project in Cooch Behar, West Bengal, India for Landesa. Last month, while traveling in the field interviewing girls participating in the project, Anuradha was killed in a road accident.
My work for Landesa centers in a beautiful, lush, and extremely poor corner of India in the Himalayan foothills. It is the part of India on the map that is pinched in by Bhutan to the north and Bangladesh to the south.
One of the drivers of the poverty here is women and girls’ lack of perceived value and power.
Every day, the low value families give girls plays out in large and small ways, some quantifiable, others not.
Often, they are not fed as well as boys.
Boys, for example, are the ones in the family who get to eat the most delicious part of the fish – the head – during a meal. This is not discussed. It is the presumed right of boys to enjoy this.
The majority of rural girls are pulled from school and married off before they turn 17.
There are lots of reasons this undervaluing of girls should change, some quantifiable, others not.
If India enrolled one percent more girls in secondary school, its GDP would rise by $5.5 billion. (Global Campaign for Education and RESULTS Education Fund)
Educated girls marry later, have fewer children, and are more likely to educate and immunize their children.
Recognizing that India can help its rural areas develop, improve immunization rates, lower fertility rates, and grow a more educated and skilled workforce, in part, by focusing more attention on poor rural girls, the West Bengal government, in partnership with Landesa, has designed and implemented the Girls Project.
The Project delivers lessons on land rights and land-based skills through girls groups, run by Anganwadi workers and girl leaders. The short-term goal is to empower girls to stay in school longer and to reduce child marriage. The long-term goal is to position girls to understand and enjoy land rights when they are women.
We start with a community meeting to tell parents and village leaders that we’ll be teaching their daughters about their rights – especially their right to remain in school and unmarried until they are 18 and their right to, one day, inherit land. We explain that their daughters will also learn leadership and life skills, they’ll go to the post office and other government offices to understand the government services available and how to access them and learn about the importance of assets like land in helping to build wealth.
The first questions are always about why we are teaching girls about land. They say, “land is a matter for men.”
Even the girls are surprised by our subject. They tell us, “this is my father’s land and one day I’ll live on my husband’s land.”
But in rural areas, where land is the most common source of power and wealth, there is no more important subject.
Studies around the world have found that women’s ability to enjoy their legal right to own and inherit land can help them better feed and provide for their children; can help protect women against domestic violence; and it can ensure that they are not thrown off their land and left with no way to support themselves or their children should they divorce or be widowed.
And so in more than 1,000 villages in a pilot district of West Bengal, twice a month, Angawadi workers, rural health workers, help girls lead meetings where more than 40,000 girls learn about their rights: their right to an education, their right to not be married until they are 18, their right to own and inherit land.
The meetings are simply a revelation for the girls.
We also give the girls powerful tools they can use to challenge assumptions about their abilities and prove their worth to their families: intensive gardening skills.
The small kitchen gardens they have begun, often not bigger than the size of bed can provide income they can use to literally change the course of their lives. They can help feed their family. They can pay school fees. They can help their parents purchase other food for the household. The small change they earn is enough in a poor family to move girls from one side of the ledger (burden) to the other (contributor), and that gives girls leverage in a poor household. This can provide the girls with the first opportunity to have a voice in family decisions – including decisions about marriage and school.
In our evaluation of the program, after only a single year, we found that participating girls were more likely to remain in school, marry later, and were more likely to have an asset in their name.
Perhaps next girls will be able to enjoy eating the occasional fish head at meal time and as adults, enjoy land rights that can enable them to better care for themselves and their families.