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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Your contribution helps empower grassroots leaders and organizations around the world to advance human dignity, civil rights and self-determination.
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.
AJWS has received an “A” rating from the American Institute of Philanthropy since 2004 and a four-star rating from Charity Navigator for nine years. AJWS also meets all 20 of Better Business Bureau’s standards for charity accountability.
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