The Girls Who Took Over A Town
The Christian Science Monitor Weekly|April 16, 2018

A group of teens in rural India, tired of do-nothing men, take dramatic steps to improve their village, demonstrating how to foster progress in the developing world.

Howard Lafranchi

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.

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