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Empowering Girls to End Violence:

On-the-Ground Lessons from India

by Amanda Cary

Zeenat was only 17 years old, but she had already been divorced three times, all from marriages that were against her will. Like many of her peers, she was first married just after puberty to a man who abused her, an experience that was repeated in her following two marriages. She had never been to a doctor after being beaten, and was unaware that India’s Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005 should have legally protected her from abuse.

Zeenat’s life changed when she came to Shaheen Resource Center for Women, an organization working in the slums of Hyderabad’s Old City to help Muslim and Dalit* women and girls combat gender discrimination and violence. Shaheen helped Zeenat negotiate an agreement with her parents acknowledging her legal right to be protected from early marriage and domestic violence. Its staff also referred her to a doctor to check for pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, and provided her with vocational training to enable her to become financially independent and therefore less likely to fall victim to a future abusive marriage.

If Zeenat does marry again, she will have the support of her family and the ability to leave if she chooses; the knowledge and resources to exercise her rights; and access to services to help her stay safe and healthy.

Halting the Cycle of Violence

Zeenat’s story is unfortunately common among poor adolescent girls in her community, her country and around the world. Violence keeps girls in poverty by rendering them physically or emotionally unable to earn an income. It also prevents * A self-designation for those traditionally regarded as the “untouchables” of India’s caste system. them from understanding and accessing their legal rights to education, healthcare, social services and freedom from abuse.

At the same time, poverty fuels more violence by limiting the resources that would enable girls like Zeenat to escape. They are utterly dependent on their abusers for everything from shelter to food to clothing. Laws that protect and support girls are needed to intervene and break the cycle. But even where they exist, such laws are too often weak, and frequently those who need them most either don’t know about them or can’t access their protections.

The “One Stop Shop” Approach

Violence against adolescent girls and women is not only a gross human rights abuse and an affront to human dignity, it is also a major impediment to achieving global development goals. Violence is both a risk factor for and an effect of poverty, hunger and disease.

We know by now that investing in women and girls is the most effective way to reduce both, and that the causes are multiple and interconnected. Yet U.S. development funding provides few programs directed explicitly toward adolescent girls, and those that exist often operate in silos. Girls can access education from a program financed by one stream of funding, healthcare from another and vocational skills from yet another. Inflexible, single-sector solutions are inefficient and inaccessible to girls who do not have the time, money or freedom of movement to access disparate and distant support services.

The most effective programs, therefore, are those that offer a “one-stop shop,” with an integrated set of tools and resources available to link together multiple sectors and support systems. Several AJWS grantees in India are finding success with this method. In each case, the organizations use a single entry point of support to connect girls to a broad network of interventions.


A health facility is often the first entry point to a social support system that brings an end to the violence in a girl’s life. In too many cases, adolescent girls seek health services only after experiencing violence or rape, when they already have a range of immediate health and safety concerns as well as long-term needs that extend well beyond the health system. The integration of health and other services maximizes the likelihood that girls will be given choices that will keep them safe and healthy.

AJWS grantee Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action (SNEHA) addresses all of these interconnected issues. Its staff understand that a girl seeking medical care for violence also needs shelter in order to leave her abusive situation. She needs counseling and legal services, education and vocational training. SNEHA also recognizes that girls who access health services for reasons other than violence are still vulnerable to abuse. SNEHA can link them to services outside the health system that can reduce their vulnerability and support them if violence occurs.

“We saw daily hospital reports of violence, yet… hospitals treated their physical conditions and then sent girls back to their abusive situations.” —Dr. Wasundhara Joshi, executive director of SNEHA

Education and Economic Opportunity

Without job skills, young women in poverty often turn to risky employment in exchange for food or shelter, including sex work. This is especially true among marginalized populations such as the Muslim and Dalit communities in India, who often have particularly low school enrollment and retention rates because of their roles as caretakers and providers in the family and because of social and cultural norms that curtail their education after puberty.

Educating a girl and giving her the training she needs to secure economic opportunities is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty and violence. Vocational skills training and access to technology have been shown to increase women’s control over resources, broaden political awareness and ultimately reduce cases of domestic abuse.1

AJWS partner Awaaz-e-Niswaan (AEN) uses a college scholarship program as an entry point to offer vocational training, counseling and support for young women in crisis. It then uses these services as platforms for teaching them about human rights and advocacy more broadly. Many young girls who came to AEN for education and vocational training leave knowing how to access the tools—across many sectors—that they need to lead full and active lives free from violence.

“If a woman is illiterate and then gets married, she is stuck. If her husband beats her, she can’t leave because she has no options.” —A 21-year-old peer group leader at Awaaz-e-Niswaan

Social Change

Prevention programs cannot ultimately be effective without addressing the underlying social norms that drive gender discrimination and violence.

This work is highly sensitive and involves challenging long-established practices and beliefs such as those promoting child marriage, dowry obligations, discriminatory divorce customs and unequal inheritance, as well as traditional concepts of masculinity, which often condone or encourage abuse of women and girls by men and boys.

AJWS grantee Girls Rise India 2 helps girls gain the skills and confidence to challenge discriminatory attitudes, first in their families and then in their broader communities. It runs peer-led support groups that provide a safe space for girls to solve their own problems and then to work together to engage local leaders to create systemic, long-term change in both customs and laws.

“The difference between the position I was in before and where I am now is like the difference between the ground and the sky.” —A 19-year-old peer group leader at Girls Rise India

Legal Rights and Government Accountability

During the pivotal 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, governments worldwide declared that women’s rights are human rights, and that violence against women is an obstacle to achieving equality, development and peace. Yet, despite the existence of some progressive laws in many countries—such as India’s Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005—implementation remains weak, underfunded and ineffective.

SAHAYOG, an organization based in Lucknow, advocates for better implementation of the law, and Shaheen, SNEHA, AEN and Girls Rise India all offer women legal support to prosecute their cases. On a local, case-by-case level, these organizations are highly successful at holding perpetrators of violence accountable—be it formally through legal prosecution or informally through community pressure. Additionally, they organize public meetings, conferences, regional forums and media events to highlight problems with implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. In these ways, they leverage the impact of individual successes so that communities become more aware that violence against women and girls has consequences.

“Without knowing rights, we can’t change society.” —A 20-year-old peer group leader at Awaaz-e-Niswaan

Empowering Girls to be Agents of Change

When girls are empowered, they have the freedom and confidence to access their rights and the resources they need in order to lead lives free of violence. Empowerment comes with better access to health services, education and economic opportunities, and an adequate social safety net to support vulnerable populations. It comes with safe spaces to challenge social norms and gender discrimination. And it comes with the knowledge needed to exercise one’s rights and participate in the political process.

By comprehensively reversing the many ways adolescent girls are routinely disempowered and made vulnerable to violence, we can support them in forging new paths. Empowered girls grow up to be empowered women who can raise their children in a violence-free environment, teach others about gender equality, contribute to raising the economic status of their families and communities, and hold their governments accountable for securing their rights. They become doctors, teachers, social workers, lawyers and community organizers. Most of all, they become agents of change for a new world—one that is free of violence—for the next generation of girls.

This article is abstracted from an AJWS policy paper published in fall 2010. To read the original or to see other policy papers in our ongoing collection, visit www.ajws.org/publications.


  1. Women Thrive Worldwide, “Women’s Economic Opportunity: Helping to End Gender-Based Violence and Poverty,” July 2009: http://www.womenthrive.org/images/gbv%20and%20poverty%20brief%20updated%20july%202009-1.pdf
  2. The name of this organization has been changed to protect its members, who are operating in a highly sensitive environment.

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American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is an international development organization motivated by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice. AJWS is dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion or nationality. Through grants to grassroots organizations, volunteer service, advocacy and education, AJWS fosters civil society, sustainable development and human rights for all people, while promoting the values and responsibilities of global citizenship within the Jewish community.

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