05/13/2013 04:59 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2013

On Her Own Two Feet: Providing Girls in India With Hope - and Job Skills - for a Better Future

By Jennifer Abrahamson

Like typical teenagers growing up in a big city, Priya and Talat are on a regular basis exposed to tantalizing possibility and grinding poverty, opportunity and danger. And in Delhi, to be an adolescent girl navigating and negotiating her future path can be especially challenging.

"Whenever I watch Indian Idol and India's Got Talent, I feel like 'Oh I wish I could be there.' I'm very fond of singing," Talat explained, her timid voice picking up pace and gaining a note of conviction "But if I tell my father now he's not going to encourage it because he'll say it's a useless thing to do."

Priya said she also enjoyed singing, and at my request, both girls performed short solos, right there in the middle of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in Delhi. Dulcet melodies in the fashion of Bollywood stars singing about broken hearts and pining for love rang out through adjacent rooms filled with teenaged girls learning how to design and stitch clothes or master Excel, PowerPoint and computer design software.

In reality, both Talat and Priya are taking a more pragmatic approach to life. Which is why I met them at the SEWA Delhi center, where they were taking advantage of a subsidized program providing adolescent girls from low-income families with vocational and life skills.

Talat's plans include finding a good job so she can 'make a lot of money' to pay for singing lessons. And Priya made it very clear that her first and most important goal in life was to become a policewoman, an ambition inspired by prevalent sexual violence in Delhi, and in particular, by the horrific gang rape and murder of a young medical student there in December. Perhaps not surprisingly, this was the second Indian girl I had met in a week who expressed a passion for protecting women as a career.

Strengthening girls' economic potential is not only critical for their own advancement; it is also vital for a country's economic development. In fact, India loses $56 billion a year in potential earnings because of adolescent pregnancy, secondary school dropout rates, and joblessness among young women.

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) last year launched its Turning Point Campaign which is focusing resources on research and programs that examine and address adolescent girls' unique challenges to leading healthy, productive, and gender-equitable lives as adult women. A recent ICRW scoping study found that sexual and reproductive health and rights interventions in India - while critical - far out-numbered those focusing on livelihoods. Researchers concluded that more comprehensive programs that integrate the two are needed in order to give more girls a better chance to change the course of their lives.

Priya and Talat's own parents are migrants from Bihar, India's poorest state, and their mothers both dropped out of school and married in their mid-teens. The program at SEWA Delhi (not covered in the study) will almost certainly provide the girls with a future their own mothers never had a chance to even consider. Not only have they learned business skills like accounting, banking, graphic design and English. They've also received lessons in 'sexuality', essential to their safety as they enter a male-dominated workforce. And once the course is over, SEWA assists girls with job placement, even making market linkages for those girls who aim to start their own small business.

Priya sees the SEWA course as a stepping stone to achieving her long-term dream to become a policewoman; she hopes it will enable her to find a white collar job (her own mother works in a garment factory) in a bank or office that will fund her college studies and training in law enforcement. Talat wants to become a graphic artist, designing business cards or magazine covers, because it will allow her to be creative and use her mind.

Both girls were also quick to talk about their futures beyond careers - their roles as wives and mothers. Priya is a romantic at heart who hopes for a 'love marriage' with a modest, humble man one day - but not until she's at least 25. Talat has a more practical outlook, preferring a wealthy husband and an arranged marriage (love marriages only lead to fighting, she warned). But age isn't so important to her.

"It's not about age, I can get married at any age," she said. "But only once I'm independent, once I'm able to stand on my own two feet."

The specifics of the girls' long-term interests clearly diverge. But what they share runs far deeper than Indian Idol or a love marriage. That is, a chance to lift themselves and their future families out of poverty, a chance to pursue their dreams, and perhaps most important of all, a chance for a life that they choose for themselves.

To learn more about ICRW's Turning Point Campaign and help change the course for adolescent girls worldwide, visit ICRW's RaiseforWomen Challenge page.