Ahead of international women’s day, young girls from small villages in Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bombay sat in a circle at Delhi’s Bikaner House to paint their ‘Dream Community’ and tell their stories. While Gausiya Sheikh from Bombay sketched a clean and trash-free village with trees all around, Rubina Khatun from Bihar crafted a collage with pictures of women laughing, dancing, playing and studying. Others, too, made posters, photo-collages and paintings imagining a life they aspire to live.
They had assembled for a week-long event organised by Dasra – a not-for-profit organisation that aims to bridge the gap between funders and small organisations in underdeveloped areas across India.
Focusing on adolescent empowerment, they invited youth delegates, NGOs, policymakers and researchers to launch their report, which maps the range of backlash that adolescent girls and small organisations face when they try to challenge established social conventions.
The event not only had sessions with policymakers discussing government schemes on adolescent health, but also those dealing with young peoples’ personal struggles and coping mechanisms.
In one such session, youth delegates recited self-composed poems and slogans, while holding up the ‘Dream Community’ posters they made in the morning.
In another, adolescent girls and members of different organisations sat together to share their experience of being rebels in their own respective areas and all the criticism they faced as a result. Simultaneously, there was a live poll for the audience to respond to questions related to the topics being discussed.
Sports for all
The discussion started off with the gendered idea of sports and how playgrounds are not generally accessible to girls. Farheen Rehmat Ali, a mentor and kabaddi trainer from Bombay, described how she was devastated when her brother didn’t allow her to play, citing ‘family honour’ as his reason.
“I was really sad when my own brother and family members stopped me from doing what I love. But, with the help of my organisation, Apnalaya, I convinced my family and community members and today I train around eight girls in the age group of 11-14 years,” she said.
Apart from the importance of allowing girls to play a sport of their choice, they also discussed the potential of using it as medium to earn a livelihood and reclaim public spaces. Sindhu Jogi, programme co-ordinator at Magic Bus said,“We take around 12-13 girls to the football ground not to get into a fight or compete with anyone, [but to create a space] for men and women to co-exist and interact with each other. All this has to be normalised.”
Cleanliness and sanitation was another recurrent issue during the discussion. The girls spoke about the health hazards posed by unattended garbage in their villages and what steps they took to redress the problem.
While Gausiya Sheikh turned a dumping ground in her village into a parking lot in suburban Bombay, Anjali Rawat from Lucknow got the name of her village Koodamoo – which translated to ‘trash mouth’ – changed to Sunder Nagar.
Describing the process of removing the trash from her area, Sheikh said, “One of my friends got Tuberculosis because of a big pile of trash next to her house. My organisation, SNEHA, conducted sessions to teach me how to write a letter to the Bombay Municipal Corporation. I wrote to them against my community’s wishes, and finally the trash was removed. Now, it is a nice parking space and the members of my community are also happy.”
Similarly, Rawat spoke about how people in her village faced discrimination because of its name being associated with garbage. “Nobody would sit near me at school because of the name of my village. I proposed the idea of changing its name name to my organisation, Breakthrough, and they helped me with the whole procedure. The name of my village is now Sunder Nagar. This has changed the perception of people as well as the government towards us. There is less garbage in my locality and I have made new friends in school,” said Rawat.
Child sexual abuse
Following Rawat’s inspiring story, Sarita Chandra – a government school principal and mentor from Jharkhand – narrated a searing tale of her interaction with a sexual abuse survivor and how she didn’t let her neighbours dissuade her from trying to help.
“One day while taking a class on child sexual abuse in my school, I saw a girl sobbing at the back. After the class, she told me that her grandfather had been sexually abusing her for years. When I went to speak to her grandfather, he pushed me back and threatened me. My neighbours and family members asked me not to get involved, but I called up the women’s commission which assured me of taking the necessary action. I am glad that the girl is now happy and doing well in life,” said Chandra.
As the audience lauded her efforts, the moderator, Neeru Malhotra, spoke about the importance of mentors like Chandra and other small organisations which help girls combat such problems.
However, Priti Prabhughate – a researcher at Dasra – noted that these organisations only create enabling environments for girls in a bid to ultimately make them self-reliant. “The challenge for empowerment programs is to create an enabling, supportive environment for her to continue practicing her agency. Organisations educate girls, help them develop insights about gender roles to bring out disparities in their lives [while giving] them life skills and the confidence to be able to demand and practice their rights,” she said.
The session concluded with a discussion on how backlash is something everyone faces and how these stories can inspire us to overcome it.