Working with children and adolescents is critical to change gender stereotypes

March 2015

Interview with Sonal Zaveri, Consultant for Child to Child

Sonal Zaveri started a Life Skills programme[i] in India in 2004 for Child to Child, which has had very positive impact on gender relationships in the communities involved in the project.

Here she tells us more about the programme and its impact on gender.

Designs 8 March5

Can you tell us more about the Child to Child Life Skills programme you ran in India please?

We were looking at the problem of HIV, which not only relates to the virus but is a developmental and social problem. As such, we couldn’t just deal with sexual identities and the roots of transmission; we had to look into gender attitudes. Women and girls are powerless in the transmission of HIV through sexual activity, as they don’t have decision-making power. While discussing these issues we realised that women themselves are not able to articulate, to critically analyse, to negotiate, to be assertive about what they need and require. To change that, we developed the Life Skills programme for vulnerable children – these included very poor children, those from very marginalised casts, street-connected children, children involved in child labour, and children living in very vulnerable situations, such as in red light districts.

How did the programme impact the communities?

Before the programme, there was an enormous amount of stigma attached to people with or infected by HIV. Once children had participated in the programme, we saw them – both boys and girls – come together when someone died from HIV related illnesses and visit their friend who had been orphaned. They also called up social services to take care of those who were ill, whereas previously the community had ostracised and discriminated against them. It was an amazing example of how the divide between girls and boys can be overcome: the programme enabled them to come together as children, and to work together for their families and communities.

Instead of running a knowledge-based programme on HIV (similar to most programmes on HIV, which focus on the roots of transmission), we worked on people’s perception of the risks, their understanding of the gender differences and the power play between the genders. We were also different from other programmes because we believed that unless children are active players and participate in this process, and unless they learn assertiveness and how to make the right decisions, it is not possible to meaningfully talk about HIV (or any other risks, whether it is about emergencies, disasters, etc.) – and expect people to change their attitudes and behaviours.

What added value did the Child to Child’s approach bring to the programme?

We decided to use the Child to Child’s approach for four reasons:

  1. it is participatory,
  2. it is inclusive, making no distinction between rich and poor or any other social division,
  3. it is rights-based and designed to enable children to actively realise their rights, and
  4. it recognises children as responsible actors capable of shaping their lives and the lives of their families and communities.

With these principles at the heart of the programme, we developed lots of activities, linking learning with life and doing active learning.

Designs 8 March3We also followed Child to Child’s philosophy in our approach to gender, by looking at it holistically. We included gender in each and every module, in each and every activity. It was blended into everything, whether we talked about communication, negotiation, problem-solving, decision-making, relationships, or the children’s self-esteem, their identity as a girl or a boy. We were always talking about gender and the issues rising because of one’s gender – the social and cultural norms, how that affects girls and boys differently, etc.

We also recognised that the adult facilitators who work with children bring their own gender baggage so we helped them to work through their own gender beliefs before they began to work with the children. It’s amazing how deep-rooted attitudes go, and women tend to self-stigmatise themselves by saying that they are not capable, that they cannot aspire, that they are not good enough.

We also dealt with the parents, the teachers, those adults who associate with children, and the wider community, to make them understand, support and nurture the changes they would witness in the attitudes and behaviours of their children. Otherwise they’d still be favouring boys and the programme couldn’t succeed. Working with children only is not enough.

Why does gender matter?

Gender is particularly important in the South Asia region – India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka – because gender disparities are huge. We come from a very traditional, patriarchal, sort of feudal culture, so there are inherent issues related to our socio-cultural norms, our attitudes, and they’re very deep-rooted in our culture. For instance there is what is called ‘boys’ preference’, which has led to a decreasing sex ratio because of female foeticide and neglect of girls. There is also a lot of deprivation and discrimination against girls, in terms of their education, the healthcare that they receive, the nutrition that is available to them, etc. Plus, we have the issue of child marriage – girls being married at a very early age, often to older men – and gender violence, which is all over the media since it’s the most sensational. But looking at the deeper-rooted issue, one realises that this is just one symptom; there is an undercurrent which privileges one gender and not the other.

Seeing as it’s very difficult to unlearn what you have learnt, working with children and adolescents is critical for working on gender. Indeed, that’s the time when people begin to understand their community’s social and cultural norms so we can influence what they will bring into adulthood. If we have the opportunity to help boys and girls learn and respect each other’s gender and appreciate who they are, and if we are able to foster empathy between them, to look particularly at gender roles, then I think we are able to influence future generations.

What were the results of the programme?

We found dramatic gender changes. Firstly, boys reported that they started to care more for the girls in their community and that they became extremely protective of them. They stopped eve-teasing (eve-teasing is when boys make denigrating remarks to girls because of their gender and is considered quite normal). The boys reported that when using public transport, they made sure that nobody did anything to the girls or eve-teased them, and they were ready to stand up for these girls. That’s a huge change in terms of the day-to-day life of girls and boys.

Secondly, the boys learnt to respect the girls. Although the mingling of adolescents is really frowned upon in India, parents allowed their children to participate in the weekly meetings because they realised that the boys were treating the girls really well, with great respect, so they didn’t need to chaperone or supervise them. This new mutual respect between boys and girls led to boys’ taking more responsibility for domestic chores and not feeling ashamed about it. This is something that is not what we call ‘normal’ in communities in India. Boys started thinking that they should help their sisters so that they can go to school, because they should not stay at home. And girls were not only supported by their brothers but by others in their community. It became normal, in these communities, for boys and girls to talk respectfully to each other, and for boys to recognise that eve-teasing is a mark of disrespect and that they need to be more caring and have more empathy for the discriminations that girls undergo.


[i] The programme was supported by Families Health International (now FHI 360), USAID, Government of India and a number of bilaterals and multilaterals interested in the work for children.


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The interview was conducted by Cleo Fatoorehchi, Communications Officer at Child to Child.