Celebrating change makers: Priya Shankar co‑founder of Girls Health Champions

Today, to mark National Day of Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood in India we’re celebrating the work of Priya Shankar, a trainee paediatrician working to address child marriage in India. Child marriage is a huge impediment to maternal mortality and safe motherhood, to champion maternal health we must address child marriage.

Priya Shankar is a trainee paediatrician and Fulbright research scholar studying at Boston University School of Medicine at Harvard University in the USA. Having learnt about the devastating effects of child marriage on maternal, adolescent and newborn health during her medical training, Priya is determined to help change things. In January 2016, she co-founded the Girls Health Champions (GHC), which trains adolescent girls as peer health educators.

Child marriage poses substantial health risks to both mother and child. Child brides face an increased risk of death during childbirth simply because they are not physically ready to bear children, and they are particularly vulnerable to pregnancy-related injuries such as obstetric fistula. Their children are also at substantially greater risk of being stillborn or dying within weeks of birth. For instance, stillborn and newborn deaths are 50% higher in mothers under the age of 20 than in women who give birth later. Sexual activity, often without contraception, also escalates the risk of these young girls getting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDs. Additionally, sexual activity within child marriage is often non-consensual and this, plus other forms of gender-based violence, can lead to child brides suffering from mental illness.

Motivated by all of this knowledge, Priya is determined to empower girls in India, where 47% of girls are married before their eighteenth birthday.

When Priya was 10 years old her father passed away. Watching her mother transform into the household leader and growing up in this matriarchal setting taught Priya the importance of female leadership. When she was a teenager, Priya visited the school her parents attended in India. This trip reinforced her conviction that girls hold the potential for leadership and social change.

Following her undergraduate studies, Priya travelled to over 15 states in India to study maternal and child health-related issues as part of a Fulbright research scholarship. During this period she became acutely aware of the crisis facing girls throughout India who are sometimes forced out of school and into marriage. Priya sees adolescence as a pivotal time for these girls. This is the time when their beliefs, attitudes, and health behaviours are set for life. In order to empower adolescent girls during this transformative period in their lives she established GHC.

GHC teaches girls about the intergenerational and long-term implications of child marriage by educating them about their rights and opening up conversations about culturally taboo subjects such as domestic violence and reproductive health.  Priya hopes that this type of dialogue will enable girls to live their lives unashamed of their womanhood. The GHC curriculum teaches girls to become peer health educators, or “Champions”. The idea is that by teaching girls the knowledge and skills to educate their peers, this will create a ‘trickle effect’ throughout Indian communities to end child marriage and empower girls. The classroom-based programme is currently taking place in schools in Maharasthra and Karnataka bi-annually and the curriculum teaches modules including: Nutrition and Anaemia, Mental Health and Gender-Based Violence, Menstrual Health and Reproductive Health. Themes including sexual and reproductive rights, as well as the adverse consequences of early child-bearing or marriage, also run throughout the curriculum.

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So far, Girls Health Champions has reached about a thousand girls, but because of the ‘trickle effect’ approach she hopes her peer trainers will have shared the message with many others in their schools and communities. Through Girls Health Champions, girls are not only learning to avoid child marriages, they are also developing into agents of social change and positive role models in their own schools and communities. Many of the Champions have already proven the efficacy of Priya’s model and their potential for health leadership. On India’s Daughters Day 2016, one 15-year old girl described the impact of being a peer educator:

“I have always wanted to be a strong and independent girl, and now I know that it is possible. I want girls to be able to follow their dreams and reach the same place as boys in society. One day, I hope to make an impact.”

When Priya hears feedback like this she knows that her work is making an impact in India towards empowering girls and is also helping to put a stop the age-old practice of child marriage. Without these traditions, girls will be free to choose their futures.

Priya has also written extensively about public health and gender issues globally. She is doing amazing work to contribute to the debate surrounding girl’s and women’s health issues, both at the governmental and community level. It is for these reasons that she is another one of our change-makers; people we are honouring for their work to end child marriage.  We thank Priya for the great work she is doing with the Girls Health Champions initiative as part of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.

This post was originally published 16 November 2016 and re-published on 11 April 2017 to mark the Day of Maternal Health & Safe Motherhood in India. 

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