As I inched closer to Muzaffarpur, one of the four districts in Bihar where The Hunger Project (THP) India‘s adolescent girls’ program is situated, I was looking forward to meeting a spirited member of the Sukyana Club in Bihar. Bihar, a state in India, ranks low in several development indicators, especially health and education of adolescent girls. For instance, while the national female child marriage rates have fallen from 47.4% in NFHS-3 (2005-2006) to 23.3% in NFHS-5 (2019-2021), child marriage in Bihar remains higher than the national average. The focus of THP India’s work in Bihar remains on addressing root causes of their multiple vulnerabilities. Hence, there is an accelerated effort to work on components of agency, voice, leadership, life skills education and related actions they can take up towards building a better life for themselves. 

The Sukyana Club or building girls’ collectives is one such crucial initiative. Through leadership workshops, life-skills education, and targeted interventions, the program fosters self-development and responsiveness, and empowers local girls with knowledge about their needs and rights. And today, I was on my way to listen and document stories of change in my role as the Senior Program Officer – Communications.

Image: Bihar, India – Manwati. Hunger Project.

The first young woman I met that day was Neeta. Neeta, a 17-year-old girl from Bihar, explained to me that she dreams of a dignified livelihood despite her family’s financial struggles: “I had to work on other people’s farms to support my parents, which affected my schooling and left me exhausted”. Determined not to drop out of school, Neeta sought advice at a Sukanya Club meeting. They suggested she learn tailoring to earn a decent income and avoid physical labour.

Neeta discussed the idea with her parents and approached a woman in her community to learn basic cutting and stitching. Unable to pay fees, Neeta offered to tutor the woman’s children in exchange for lessons. Since then, Neeta has completed her schooling and now earns INR 1000 per month (AUD $18). Neeta aims to further her skills at a government institution specialising in stitching and embroidery, steadily working towards a better future for herself and her family.

Immediately, Neeta’s story demonstrates an example of what can be achieved when young girls in India, and globally for that matter, are “empowered”. However, the question as to what “empowered” actually means remains a perennial question at the heart of international development. In this case, Neeta’s tailoring has led to her becoming economically empowered, and to build confidence along the way. However, throughout this THP project in India, my colleagues and I have also learnt how “empowerment” emerges in many different and diverse compositions beyond simply economic empowerment, and can even extend to safety, mobility, food security and active citizenship. 

For example, in another Sukanya Club meeting, members Zainab, Reema, Jamuna, Simran, and Mehreen have demonstrated how empowerment is also closely related to safety and mobility. With support from THP India, they drafted a petition to address the lack of solar street lights in their area, which is closely related to the safety and mobility of women and girls. In turn, they were able to secure three additional street lights within a month. The young women explained that these acts of leadership were possible because they were given safe learning spaces. Safe, collective spaces empower girls to challenge patriarchal structures, realise aspirations beyond early marriage, and advocate for societal change.

Another form of empowerment that has become clear throughout our work is the empowerment and agency that comes from adequate social protection schemes. For example, as Lalita from Jamui shared, social protection is vital for many rural households because it offers income security against poverty, especially during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.She had become aware of the government schemes through the Sukanya Club and explained how the family benefit scheme provided her family with INR 20,000 (AUD 362) after the death of the primary income earner of the family. She also explained how in the immediate aftermath of her family members’ passing, the scheme helped to mitigate immediate hunger risks and improve her understanding of available council services.

Bihar, India. Pinki Adolescent Girls program. Credit Anurag Banerjee/ Hunger Project

Relatedly, another form of empowerment, whilst perhaps less commonly known, is the empowerment and agency that comes with nutrition security. For example, recently, a field team member who works closely with the girls, highlighted to me the impact of kitchen gardens, another small but critical initiative undertaken by the program. She had met Himani, who mentioned how growing a kitchen garden helped address the nutritional needs of her family. Across 35 gram panchayats, adolescent girls have created 210 nutrition gardens. Himani explained that she finds the task both fun and intellectually engaging, while Misha noted the benefits to her pregnant sister-in-law and the family’s reduced dependency on male members. These young women firmly believed that this initiative has increased their decision making power within their households, fostered pride and has, in turn, enabled them to make more informed decisions about their futures, such as delaying early marriage.

The need to empower girls, whether economically, socially, in relation to safety and mobility or through nutrition, is inherently underpinned by a moral imperative. However, it is also the key to unlocking sustainable solutions to more equal and just societies. Educated and empowered girls are more likely to invest in their families’ health and education, leading to better food security and economic stability. The Sukyana Club is just one of many interventions within the wider gender equality ecosystem in India working to achieve gender equity. Indeed, recent studies such as ‘Mapping Incremental Change In A Complex Society’ (2022; supported by American Jewish World Service) similarly reiterated that creating safe spaces, collectives, and empowering girls are critical pathways through which girls become confident while bargaining with patriarchy. By supporting these initiatives, funders and philanthropists can foster an important process of knowledge-building and consciousness-raising that transforms individual lives and communities in Bihar, India and beyond.

Investing in adolescent girls is essential because they deserve to live with dignity and safety as equal rights-holders. They are ready, but they are now asking “Are you ready?” (Audre Lorde)



Surbhi Mahajan

Surbhi Mahajan is currently working as the Senior Programme Officer – Communications at The Hunger Project (India Office). She has a MA in Development Studies from the Institute of Development Studies (University of Sussex), and an M.Phil/MA from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Modern History. Her primary area of interest includes understanding discourses around gender, social justice, human rights, protest spaces, civil society and participation, and utility of visual representation in documenting change narratives.

THP India is a non-profit organisation committed to empowering elected women representatives and adolescent girls in rural India. Our interventions remain committed to our vision to ensure gender equality and social justice. To this end, we explore new and innovative pathways that seek to amplify voice and agency as well as strengthen the practices of good governance, accountability and transparency in villages.

Feature image: School play on delaying marriage, Bihar, India. Credit Anurag Banerjee/The Hunger Project