Young Seema* remembers a time when her brother saw some boys teasing her while she was standing on the balcony of her house. Instead of reprimanding the boys, her brother pushed her indoors and started abusing her while her mother beat her up. "I was furious and bewildered by this attack, especially as I had not done anything," is the young girl's impassioned protest.
Meera, 19, recollects an incident a few years back when she was returning home after fetching milk and was physically accosted by a boy in the street. "I had not wrapped a chunni (scarf) around my shoulders," she admits. The chunni is a symbol of modesty and women who do not wear one are often looked at as brazen and of "loose morals" not only in the south Delhi Tigri resettlement colony where Meera and Seema live, but in many neighborhoods across India.
Though Meera's mother immediately caught and thrashed the boy, the neighbors were not so supportive. "Our neighbor commented that the fault lay with me for not wearing a chunni," recalls Meera ruefully.
Another girl explains how her boyfriend gets furious if he sees her talking to anyone in the lane. "One day he saw me talking to my brother...he came in the evening and beat me up severely. But even then I did not say anything to him because I love him so much."
Shekhar, 19, who works in a finance company, when asked what kind of friendship boys and girls share, says, "It depends upon the boys' will. Some boys and girls have sex and some do not." Aman narrated how his friend was able to coerce his girlfriend into having sexual relations with him. When asked if the girl had not objected, he responded: "No, because my friend had made her eat some medicine that made her also feel like having sex."
These incidents are illustrative of the complex social and sexual interactions between adolescent boys and girls. Adolescence is a stage of transience from being a child towards becoming an adult - with needs that the child does not know and adults fail to acknowledge. In the Indian context of a patriarchal society, adolescent girls' vulnerability is heightened by the prevailing stereotypes that ensure her subordinate position.
"The roles of a woman seldom deviate from the norm and the adjectives used to describe a 'good' woman actually lets women be the 'weaker' sex at the mercy of men," observes community health activist Dr Geeta Sodhi. "Perpetuation of these stereotypes has led women to passively accept the roles given to them by society. This acquiescence and the resultant vulnerability are being handed down from mothers to daughters and the need of the hour is to break this cycle and better equip adolescent girls to handle themselves," she adds.
Sodhi is Director of Swaasthya, an NGO working in the Tigri resettlement colony with the goal of enhancing the reproductive health status of the community. In 1996, Swaasthya initiated a qualitative research on the sexual behavior of adolescents in the colony. Findings of the research reiterated the vulnerability of adolescent girls to HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), unwanted pregnancies, sexual coercion, violence and exploitation.
"Subsequently, we designed an intervention programme to enhance the sexual health of adolescent girls by addressing the girls and their immediate environment based on a community development approach," explains Sodhi. Some of the factors influencing adolescent girls' vulnerability were found to be low self-esteem, low bargaining power, social norms that hamper access to information, lack of understanding and knowledge of body and sexuality, lack of negotiation skills and gender inequalities.
To reduce these factors, the training programme was designed so that girls would be able to carve an identity of their own by learning about the concept of self, emotions, relationships, body and violation of self; enhancing their personal skills in problem solving, decision making, negotiation and assertion; and applying the acquired skills in real life settings. "Our objective is to provide an enabling and supportive environment for adolescent girls by increasing communication between various groups in the community, not only on taboo subjects like sex but also on everyday topics," says Sodhi. Attitudinal changes in mothers, boys and peers were also sought to increase understanding of girls' needs, awareness of their rights and ability to make their own decisions, she points out.
The concerns of adolescents are dealt with in depth in the recent 'State of the World Population 2005' report brought out by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Nearly half the world's population - over three billion people - is under the age of 25 and 85 per cent of them live in developing countries, it says.
Observing that gender-based expectations greatly influence the experience of adolescence, the report says girls are often left at a disadvantage. As they enter puberty, bias against girls puts them at higher risk than boys for dropping out of school, sexual violence and child marriage. Boys' freedoms and opportunities may expand while girls' experiences are often the opposite, it notes.
During this period, differential treatment may become more pronounced, with girls schooled to become wives and mothers and boys groomed to become providers. Girls are typically expected to be compliant while boys are encouraged to project strength and control. The expectations placed on boys could contribute to aggressive or risky behavior, with harmful effects for them and others, the report warns.
It recognizes that adolescents' perception of their own value and potential is strongly influenced by family members, friends, schools, communities and the media and that parents and other adults in the community can provide supportive guidance and foster inter-generational understanding to help adolescents cope with the new challenges in their lives.
Raising girls and boys to respect each other, to aspire equally to educational and work opportunities and to expect fair treatment in relationships and marriage helps build strong families and advances the Millennium Development Goals, the report adds.
Swaasthya has made a perceptible move in this direction. Its' ongoing Sexual Health Intervention Programme, started in 1999 in collaboration with the International Centre for Research on Women, a Washington-based NGO, has led to improved communication and social support, which has helped align girls with their mothers, peers, boys and men within the community.
For girls like Sadhana, 14, who hardly ever used to go outdoors or even talk to anyone within her family, the Swaasthya meetings transformed her magically. Now both she and her mother have joined the programme and have started communicating with each other and sharing their views. And when Prema, 19, approached a Mahila Panchayat member for help after becoming pregnant following rape by a local youth, the entire community stood by her and forced the culprit to pay the expenses for an abortion.
(*Names of all girls and boys have been changed to protect their identities.)