May 31, 2024

Child in Need Institute: Spreading Awareness of Child and Adolescent Rights

Community-led groups and committees facilitated by Child in Need Institute are helping communities become more aware of child and adolescent rights and the importance of delaying marriage until adulthood in India.

Please visit our Community-Driven Change: Demonstrating Impact in Africa and India resource center for our full report and additional case studies.

“When I was 16, my marriage was arranged by my parents against my will. At an adolescent group meeting [organised by Child in Need Institute], I learned that underage marriages are illegal, which my parents did not know. Knowledge of my legal rights helped me convince them to cancel the ceremony.”
Adolescent Peer Group Member, Kulpi

For adolescent girls in Kulpi, a village in West Bengal, India, the possibility of falling prey to underage marriage used to loom large. The region previously reported one of the highest incidences of underage marriage in India, with more than 41 percent of women 20–24 years old married before the age of 18. Just one impact of this practice is that married girls typically are forced to drop out of school.  

Once powerless to create a future different from that of an underage bride, Kulpi’s adolescent girls have begun to fight back with the help of Child in Need Institute (CINI). Community-led groups and committees facilitated by CINI are spreading awareness of child and adolescent rights and the importance of delaying marriage until adulthood. Parents are becoming better educated about the importance of daughters completing their education and about the government schemes that support this. 

People sitting at a meeting to discuss children's rights      Child in Need Institute facilitates community groups to help identify child safety risks and then develop plans to address them. 

CINI’s role in community-driven change

CINI was founded in 1974 by Samir Chaudhuri, a paediatrician. As CINI’s community engagement grew beyond clinical settings, it became evident that children’s well-being was intricately linked to poverty, inequality, and the status of women. Accordingly, CINI employs a multidisciplinary approach. Reaching out to communities in both rural and urban locations, it brings together the community, service providers, and local government institutions to identify issues and solve them in a participatory way. Each stakeholder thus becomes accountable for creating a mechanism that prevents women and children from slipping through the cracks. 

CINI also strengthens the capacities of Anganwadi workers (government-appointed community health workers), local government workers, teachers, and Accredited Social Health Activists (employed by the government to communicate between the health care system and rural populations) to support children and their families to access services and schemes. Today, CINI operates across six states in India, providing direct and indirect assistance to more than 10 million people.

Why CINI adopted a community-driven change approach

With 50 years of experience, CINI has learned that the way to support sustainable change is to enable the community to identify its needs and then facilitate efforts to address them. This means working with women, children, and adolescents as well as partnering with key stakeholders to improve access to health services, nutrition, education, child protection, and a sustainable environment. Projects succeed when they are delivered in partnership with stakeholders.

From its beginnings as a direct-service provider, CINI has transitioned into the role of facilitator. It mobilises community members and local government representatives into collectives, including mahila mandals (women’s groups), adolescent groups, and village-level child protection committees. Through a participatory process, these collectives produce a “social resource map” to identify resources in their village and assess the vulnerabilities of children by marking each household with a coloured bindi.

CINI helps committees prioritise problems and develop a plan to address them. These plans are integrated into local governments’ annual planning processes (such as the Gram Panchayat Development Plans of Panchayati Raj Institutions). This enables collectives to take targeted action to address issues, such as by running awareness campaigns or linking communities with available services and social security schemes.

Facilitating a shared vision and collective ownership

The adolescents in CINI’s peer groups deeply feel the threat of underage marriage and are motivated to protect their rights and the rights of every child. They present a strong, unified voice before adults, including government officials, to advocate for their rights. The adolescent groups have successfully prevented many underage marriages by counselling parents and children on the importance of delaying marriage and completing education. Their active participation in preparing and updating their community’s social resource map helps them to identify “at-risk” peers and protect them from this harm.

Underage marriage is a personal issue to adolescents who have faced such a threat themselves or have seen others subjected to it. This translates to a high degree of ownership over prevention and ensuring that their peers make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health as well as practice their rights to protection and participation. 

Strengthening the community’s leadership and asset base

The collectives facilitated by CINI do not restrict themselves to issues of child and adolescent rights. They incorporate other issues faced by the community, such as climate change. The frequency of natural disasters in recent years has resulted in some low-lying villages being submerged during cyclones and daily high tides. This inspired collectives to work closely with local government to take steps to mitigate the risk of flooding, establish relief shelters, and improve access to rescue plans and resources. “Our village is situated on lowlands that get submerged during high tides,” says a community member. “We have worked with the gram panchayat to build a dam to protect against this.” (The gram panchayat, or village council, is a basic governing institution in India.)

The collectives also act as a bridge between government schemes and unmet needs by improving the community’s awareness of the schemes. For instance, the Kanyashree Prakalpa scheme seeks to improve the well-being of girls, specifically those from socio-economically disadvantaged families. The programme provides access to scholarships so girls can continue their education and delay marriage beyond the age of 18.

Focusing on equity

CINI is continuing its efforts to support communities by finding innovative ways to create change for women and children. For example, girls in Murshidabad facing the problem of sexual harassment called “eve teasing” came together to present this issue at the gram panchayat, accompanied by CINI representatives. The gram panchayat followed up by contacting their school, which now ensures that more police are stationed outside to protect girls from harassment. 

Outcomes in communities

Although building sustainable community collectives can be a lengthy process, CINI’s focus on shifting behaviours and social norms has yielded positive results. CINI provides guidance to an array of individuals, programme sectors, and collectives, each of which it considers essential. “I have stopped seven marriages on the day of the wedding,” says one panchayat pradhan (an elected official of the gram panchayat). 

A Harvard University study of CINI’s work found that where it operates in West Bengal, it “significantly improved the functioning of the local child protection system.” The study also documents “success in preventing child marriages, engaging young people in social change, and generating buy-in for children’s rights among diverse stakeholders that would otherwise give little focus to these issues.”

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