Priya Shankar, MPH ’16, is launching a peer education program to help girls live healthy lives.
India has so many adolescent girls that if they formed their own nation, it would be the 12th-largest country in the world. Priya Shankar, MPH ’16, wants to see all of those girls living their healthiest, fullest lives—no easy task in a country where traditional gender roles sometimes proscribe certain opportunities for females.
As Shankar sees it, change begins with girls believing in their own worth. To help move things along, she’s created Girls Health Champions, a program that trains girls to teach each other about topics that can be hard to talk about with adults, like menstrual hygiene and coping with depression. It offers schoolgirls a chance to become leaders and to learn how to support one another. After a successful pilot run in a single school in South India that earned Shankar and her business partner and fiancé, Ricky Sharma, runner-up honors in the 2016 Harvard University President’s Challenge for social entrepreneurs, she’s scaling up the program. While her original business plan envisioned carrying out the program at five more schools this year, the $15,000 prize money she received from the challenge means she will be able to scale up her program. She hopes to roll it out over time to hundreds of schools.
“Even if we only reach 1 million girls, that’s so many,” says Shankar, a medical student and future pediatrician who took a year off to earn a degree in health policy from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her large, expressive eyes shine as she leans back in her chair and imagines the implications. “A million girls who believe that they can be leaders, who know something about how their bodies work, who can recognize when their fellow students need help—that would make a huge difference.”
SOCIAL MEDIA AND BOLLYWOOD VS. DOMESTIC CHORES AND STREET HARASSMENT
Indian girls today lead complicated lives. They are steeped in the modern world of social media and Bollywood films, yet many are also held back by age-old beliefs. Girls’ school enrollment has reached near parity with that of boys at all school levels—and has even surpassed them in primary school—but many girls are still kept home when they reach adolescence. Parents expect them to help out with domestic chores or want to protect their daughters from rampant sexual harassment on the street. Although the legal age for marriage is 18, nearly half of all Indian girls will be married younger. More than 4 million become pregnant each year. And as India has ascended as an international power, suicide among girls ages 15 to 19 spiked by 126 percent between 1990 and 2010—and is now their leading cause of death.
The cost of this tragically lost potential can be measured not only in emotional or social terms but also in economic calculations. Shankar notes that, according to the World Bank, if Indian girls delayed pregnancy until their early 20s, that alone would boost the nation’s GDP by $7.7 billion. But many girls receive little if any reproductive health education at home or in school. Shankar believes that peer education can fill a critical gap.
“I’ve learned from working with adolescents in India and in the clinical setting that girls get a lot of health information from their friends,” she says. “I want to equip them with accurate knowledge to share with each other.”
In January of this year, Shankar piloted Girls Health Champions at a private school in the South Indian city of Mysore, with the support of Harvard Chan’s Maternal Health Task Force and the Public Health Research Institute of India. Eighteen girls were randomly selected to serve as “Champions” from a group of 68 ninth-graders participating in the program. They spent a week mastering a curriculum about nutrition, anemia, mental health, gender-based violence, menstruation, and reproductive health—and then taught what they learned to their classmates during the program.
Most of these topics are still stigmatized in Indian society, and Shankar says that some parents were uneasy about letting their daughters participate. When addressing taboos around menstruation—some believe, for example, that women who have their periods should stay out of places of worship—Shankar avoided telling the girls whether these proscriptions are good or bad. Rather, she encouraged them to talk with one another and explore their own feelings.
But when addressing high-risk problems such as domestic violence or the street harassment known as “Eve teasing,” she was unequivocal. “When girls grow up believing that wife beating is normal or that women should eat only after the men in the family have finished a meal, they need someone to tell them that it’s not OK,” Shankar says. “Girls might not be able to change their mothers’ minds, but hopefully they will share what they’ve learned with their sisters and friends. Maybe the program will inspire them to give their own daughters a different life.”
A MATRIARCHAL FAMILY OVERNIGHT
Shankar calls her own childhood a 50-50 blend of India and the United States. She was raised in a town in California with a small Indian-American community. Throughout childhood, she shuttled between public school and after-school hours, which were filled with classes in traditional Indian dance.