Powering up ‘VOICE’s in Tamil Nadu

Often underestimated is how much agony and affliction can be alleviated simply by the act of someone being there to lend an ear- we stand humbled at receiving that lesson yet again…

August has been a big month for us at VOICE. We conducted two successful pilots-‘Sakhi Peer Leadership Camp’ at the Telangana Rural Welfare Residential School at Mahendra Hills and the first ever ‘Her VOICE Parichay’ camp in Minjur, Tamil Nadu. The Parichay Camp was conducted in partnership with TNSSA and UNICEF for 31 girls of classes 6 to 9. The girls, from SRDS Undu Uraivida Palli and Sahaya Matha residential schools, were educated about vital issues like health, menstruation, nutrition, safety, gender-related violence and discrimination.

 

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The camp was an eye-opener for us in so many ways. For one thing, these children, hailing from streets and slums where cut-throat is the only way to survive, presented several behavioral manifestations of their disturbed ‘home’ environments. It was no small feat to urge our campers to acquiesce and to settle into their ‘classroom’. They openly challenged their counsellors, flouting instruction and refusing to participate in activities. Slowly, things settled and fell into a misshapen pattern. Despite their troubles, or maybe because of them, these campers are incredibly bright, quick on the uptake and street-smart (literally). The camp counsellors were kept on their toes, answering questions they had never anticipated. The energy in the classroom was almost fiery.

Slowly too, did issues of violence, abuse and neglect come to light. The chapter on recognizing and reporting violence was met with distress and tears. Many of the girls later confided that they had been subjected to violence and abuse time and time again. A flux of emotions – anger, fear, despair and shame packed into frail little frames. In most cases, the abuse was ongoing, ever present and all-consuming. The stories were heartbreaking; these girls were not aware that they were being wronged in the worst possible way. Guilt and shame weighed them down. Campers were encouraged to come forth with their stories, they were assured that abuse is not something they did but something criminal that was being done to them. The school staff was enlisted to step in, by bringing in counsellors for the girls and to disallow these children from being taken back to their abusive homes.

If there was ever a need to reach out, it was here;  if there was ever a need for hope to be ingrained, it was here. Even though the camp was only conducted for the girls between classes 6 and 9, VOICE staff was cherished and loved by most every little busybody in the school. Arriving at school for camp each morning to rising cheers of ‘Vandittangu!’ (They have arrived!) from weathered little faces decorated with grins, each day was truly beautiful. Even as camp concluded and VOICE packed up; children with beautiful eyes urged the staff to stay on. A not-so-subtle reminder of how much in need of love they are; or perhaps they just need someone to listen to them and believe in them.

As the powerful wielder of words Toni Morrison said,  ‘The death of self-esteem can occur quickly, easily in children, before their ego has “legs,” so to speak. Couple the vulnerability of youth with indifferent parents, dismissive adults, and a world, which, in its language, laws, and images, re-enforces despair, and the journey to destruction is sealed.’

Can we all change that journey? Yes, all you need is an open heart and an empathetic ear.

A Day at VOICE Camp!

‘Educating the mind without educating the heart, is no education at all,’ said Aristotle. At VOICE Camp, I found that it was truly possible to do both. Especially in a classroom filled with girls whose minds are alight with an all-consuming fire to learn everything, to absorb like sponges and to become strong enough to alleviate the impossible hardships they face at such a young age. My first day at VOICE Camp left me awestruck and truly inspired.

An account by Malini Gopalakrishnan…

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It has been less than a month since VOICE 4 Girls welcomed me into the family. I think it was the first time that my passion counted for as much as my skills. It has been an exciting couple of weeks, and I have learnt so much. However, the highlight of my newbie month has to be my experience at VOICE Camp. This particular camp, was a VOICE Sakhi Camp, teaching girls of class nine about leadership skills and community outreach; most of them have already attended our Parichay and Disha camps where they have learnt so much about their bodies, basic health and hygiene, their safety, basic rights and responsibilities. So, you could say that most of these girls are seasoned VOICE Campers.

Now I love kids, have one whom I am trying to raise and I interact with as many young ‘uns as I can; these kids at camp made me feel like a fledgeling around them. Compared to the majority of urban children who seem so aware and sadly desensitised, each girl at camp is a riot! The energy these girls have is remarkable! It was not wasted upon me the meaning of privilege, that neither my daughter nor I had to fight tooth and nail to go to school, surrounded by these eager youngsters for whom education is etched with aspiration. They bound into the classroom with palpable excitement and joy.

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Supriya Gudur, our counsellor for this camp, is a lovely 2nd year engineering students. It is obvious that the girls love her–they tease her, they listen to her, they worship her and they trust her. The classroom is monitored by my colleague Irine Elizabeth; her classroom presence is incredible even from the sidelines. The day’s lesson talks about the qualities that make a good leader; we begin with an activity which involves the girls being divided into groups with one member acting out a leadership quality (written on chits and picked out by the girls), while the team guesses the word. What ensues is a flurry of laughter and cackles, some hilarious attempts at guessing, some indignant foot-stomping from the enacting member—leading up to either a hit or a miss. The girls have a ball and I feel like I have been charged on a live wire! By the end of the activity, the girls have learnt about concepts like fairness, humility, risk-taking, honesty , encouragement etc. As the day hurries on (time really flies around these dynamos), our girls continue to assimilate facets of leadership; they learn about the skills, qualities and set of values that make one leader stand out from another. The fun never stops.

As I sit clutching my side, aching from all the laughter, wiping away tears of mirth, I have a realisation. Of how these girls, 13-15 years all, wise beyond their years in the face of all their trials, are contrastingly untouched, unbridled and refreshingly innocent. I reflect at how a mere ten-day camp has given them so much hope and unleashed all of this energy. It feels like sitting in the front row watching a miracle, seeing these girls transform from shy and reserved to confident and deliciously mischevious.

By the end of camp, we have girls opening up about various problems–ranging from a missing pair of spectacles to mounting pressure to get married. The girls are encouraged to help and support each other, to alert school authorities when they feel like the problem might be out of their control, to stand up for their rights and their futures.

As we wrap up for the day, I am asked by the girls when I will come again to meet them. It puts a lump in my throat to say goodbye… The Camp, its resident campers, my colleagues, the school on a hilltop, all made me feel rejuvenated. To be a part of something much bigger… another’s life, what a feeling it is. In the immortal words of Anne Frank, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait another moment to improve the world.”

You too can be part of something that is changing the world… Become a VOICE Counsellor and you too can be a part of something bigger.

Careers in Rural Management

On the sixteenth of August, VOICE 4 Girls hosted its first Facebook Live session, with our Executive Director, Anusha Bharadwaj talking about Rural Management as a career in India. We had opened out the session for questions from the community pertaining to the topic. We had a great time hosting the event and addressing all the questions that came in. 

Here are some excerpts from Anusha’s live chat…

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Some Insight into Rural Management 

“India as a country faces an odd situation today. 70% of India’s population is still living in rural areas. However, most of the top B-schools cater to the corporate sector and jobs therein. India produces a few thousands of managers each year. There is a key need for recognizing rural India as a sector for furthering business, development and Indian economy in general. There was a study that said that rural India and rural Indians as consumers are adding a whopping 69 billion dollars to the Indian economy. So not just in terms of production but also in terms of consumption, the market is shifting.The last decade has seen so  much progress in terms of rural innovation, rural enterprises, microfinance and rural businesses. The development sector is also shifting from being charity-based to a more rights-based approach. So there is a lot of potential in rural management. Not just in terms of taking India up a step, but also in terms of a career, rural management is a very lucrative avenue for youngsters today.

Rural management is quite different from social work which deals more with understanding communities and building community-based solutions.With social work, there is more focus on researching and setting qualitative indicators to problems within communities. But once that is done, to take it to scale, you need a business model and that’s where rural management helps you understand what goes into planning, designing a development product or a business product for rural markets. Also, it helps understand resource allocation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation on a large scale. So basically rural management is management principals applied to the rural sector; it is about managing businesses with rural areas or within rural communities.While all the various aspects of a regular MBA like marketing, human resources, sales etc are covered, what makes this course exciting is the field work that it entails where students get a deep understanding of the complex social, political, economical and cultural dynamics of rural communities. There is no better way to gain insight into the the rural areas than to actually live and work there. In addition, a rural management course would include some organizational work where students are placed with rural cooperatives, corporations, and NGOs. So without a doubt, a management degree in the rural sector will give you an edge in the development sector.”

Courses and Careers

“The Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA) was among the pioneers in establishing an integrated course on Rural Management. Today, newer colleges are offering rural management courses like the Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneshwar, and even mainstream colleges like Indian Institute of Management. For those looking to specialise in the agriculture sector, there are some agri-business schools and cooperatives that have management courses specifically suited to that sector.

In terms of career prospects, a degree in Rural Management can land you a job as a project manager or team leader. Or you could be managing rural businesses; there are rural banks and cooperatives that are employing managers. With the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Bill being implemented, the development sector has grown so much and there’s so much more demand for rural managers. So there is a wide range of roles from that of a manager to that of a director. With a degree in rural management, you could start at a management position; it will actually give you an edge. A popular myth among the youth is that careers in the development sector are ‘not lucrative’. Far from the truth, placements in the rural sector are on the rise, with salaries matching those in the corporate sector. So in terms of work it is a really good option.”

Testing the Waters

“If you are thinking about a course in rural management and want to test the waters, taking up an internship in the sector would be a great idea. Whether you are looking to explore the other side of India, out of curiosity or the passion to make a difference, internships give you an idea of what you can expect in the future. In fact, VOICE has an internship opening up where we have thousands of undergraduate and graduate students being trained by us and then sent into government and low-cost private schools to teach adolescent girls. So it is a true insight into education in the rural sector, the problems and social issues faced by adolescent girls in these areas while acquiring skills to deliver content and a curriculum to these young girls. It is a life-changing experience for the intern as well as the girls she teaches. This is just one of the many opportunities available today in terms of internships in the rural sector. There are so many organisations today that are opening up their doors to youngsters who are willing to learn and have the passion and the grit to do it. Interns who have worked with us have gone on to do international development, rural management, and social work. So it’s a great place to start!”

Anusha Bharadwaj has been working in the development sector since 2002. She has a degree in rural management from Institute of Rural Management, Anand