The Wind Beneath my Wings

The last three months have been such a blur, we have barely felt the ground beneath our feet. Happily enough, there couldn’t be a better way to stay busy! This last quarter VOICE’s work has been seen, heard and felt by so many!

October began in the most fortuitous manner —  after many years of hard work, perseverance and patience, we were finally gaining recognition for our work. We won not one but two awards, on the 11th of October, the International Day of the Girl Child: the iVolunteer Award for ‘Leader in Volunteer Engagement’ and the Balika Bandhu Award!

 

 

Also in October, I undertook a three-week travel to USA and Mexico to represent VOICE’s work in various international fora. The first stop was at Ixtapa, Mexico where I attended the Opportunity Collaboration (OC), a global network of leaders dedicated to building sustainable solutions to poverty. This network emerges from a week of intense convening of global thought leaders who connect with people over social challenges and find a space to find organizations interested in social impact. It is a unique convention that brings together implementers, policymakers, funders and thought leaders so I was eager to attend the Opportunity Collaboration to represent VOICE 4 Girls.

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I was also awarded the prestigious Cordes Fellowship, an opportunity for exceptional social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders engaged in poverty alleviation and economic justice enterprises to participate as delegates in the Opportunity Collaboration. So fortified with the Fellowship and hope to connect with other thought leaders, I attended the convention, which was an explosion of ideas, solutions and conversations. It was amazing to meet with feminist groups like Women Thrive and I am now representing VOICE in their alliance.

Considering the trip to Mexico was through the USA, I took the opportunity to also connect with other organisations, VOICE donors and supporters. One of the pitstops was at the Virginia Tech University where I did a series of events. The first was a public lecture – “Investing in Empowering Adolescent Girls for a More Just World: Lessons from South India”.

I also gave a guest lecture for undergraduate studies enrolled in the Gender Studies course in the Feminist Theory Class – “Career in Rural Development”. It was wonderful that the trip coincided with the Diwali Celebrations of Association for India’s Development’s Diwali Celebrations where I spoke about VOICE’s work.

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My trip concluded with a trip to New York where I had a wonderful meeting with AJWS Staff, Javid Syed, Director of Sexual Health and Rights and Ms. Jennifer Redner, Senior Advocacy Advisor – SRH where I presented the work of VOICE 4 Girls.

Back at home, VOICE played host to many visitors! We had the opportunity to engage with Victoria Ibiwoye with hopes that one day we can collaborate on impactful work! We were also delighted to have a team of volunteers from Scotland through our supporters Scottish Love in Action. The team of volunteers from Edinburgh conducted simple spoken English workshops for our girl campers. It must be said that it was a two-way learning experience and the excitement of our girls was matched by our volunteers.

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We are also proud to have hosted a panel discussion on 25 November, International Day for Prevention of Violence Against Women. The discussion, ‘VOICEs Against Gender-Based Violence’ was organised in partnership with British Deputy High Commission Hyderabad, and Andrew Fleming, British Deputy High Commissioner, Hyderabad, was also on the panel with me. The esteemed panellists were able to bring to light several factors that contribute to gender-based violence; they also discussed the role of the youth in building a gender-equitable society.

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With Her VOICE Disha and Sakhi camps happening across Medak and Mahabubnagar Districts till 30th of December, VOICE is truly ending the year with a bang! Even though there’s  been hardly a minute to catch my breath, I could not be more thrilled with how these last few months have gone by.

I am filled with gratitude – to our partners, our supporters, our counsellors, our delightful and inspiring campers, and the VOICE team – this is for all of you. You are and have always been the wind beneath VOICE’s wings!

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Hoping to carry this energy, love, and strength into the coming year and wishing you all the same!

Warmly,

Anusha Bharadwaj

Executive Director

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That Elusive Freedom…

 

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“Hey, could I borrow some cash from you? I don’t want to stop at an ATM dressed like this!”

“Hey, text me once you get home. In fact, take your phone off silent and keep texting me till you get home. Let the driver know that you are talking to someone.”

Arre, I am waiting at the bus-stop. So much lewd staring! I should have just taken a rickshaw.”

“A couple of guys on a bike kept following my car. You know what I did? I parked at the next signal and right next to the police booth! That taught them a lesson!”

“I need to pick up some things from the store. Could you take me? I just don’t want to walk down. That last stretch of the road has no streetlights…”

“Why are you travelling alone to U.P. by train? It just isn’t safe!”

“Why don’t you ask for an earlier shift at work? It is just not safe coming home so late!”

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Any of these phrases sound familiar to you? They mark every landscape of a girl or woman’s life. We learn to anticipate danger; we turn our fear into a shield. Like the scouts and guides’ motto, we learn to ‘be prepared’.

How do we learn to fear the outdoors? Does it surface from an ocean of experience, or from conditioning – the framework within which a woman can exist ‘freely’?

I can’t remember when I learned to catalogue dark spaces; shield my chest as I walk down the streets, to dress ‘modestly’ when using the public transport, to summon up my city girl tricks for safe cab travel, to avoid basements of office parking spaces, to keep in constant touch with friends and family when I am travelling alone.

What I do remember is the first time someone groped me at a bus-stop – a quick squeeze before the faceless offender jumped on to the footboard of a bus. It took a few minutes for it to register… however, the emotional recoil was instant. That dirty feeling that no amount of soap could wash off, the helplessness-meeting-anger-rush that stung my eyes and nose. I was in school at the time. For days afterwards, I could recall the repulsive lingering pain left behind by those assaulting hands; I would physically shake my head to get rid of them. A few more years of lecherous men, catcalling, groping, flashers, masturbators, and stalkers later, a defence mechanism arose. We, women, learn these ways young; a sad rite of passage.

A few months back, my 8-year-old daughter came home from the park looking pale and quietly told me that two boys kept touching her ‘there’ – pointing to her chest. She was visibly shaken and distraught. And along with waves of pain I felt for her, there arose a sickening acknowledgement that for her it had just begun.

Is this the kind of world we want to live in? The kind where little girls are taught to build armour, learn to fend off predators, learn to shrink their presence to avoid and deter violence? Violence that will always be seen as a result of this girl not having been careful enough… Is a world where streets, transportation, bus-stops, stations, parks, basements, hours of the day or night, pockets of neighbourhoods/cities/countries are cordoned off, one that heralds freedom?

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Can we aspire for a world where safety from violence is not left to preventive measures? Segregated compartments, pepper sprays, CCTV cameras, curfews, well-lit spaces, SOS apps are all fine, but how long can the conversation revolve around protection of women rather than the creation of a gender-equitable world. I would like to believe that it is not impossible for a woman to step out without being seen as an object to desire and acquire; for women to be seen for what they are…human beings.

As I pondered the incident at the park, I thought of those two teenaged boys. Could they have known that they had caused such agony to another human being? I wonder if somewhere those boys’ parents spent sleepless nights wondering if their sons would further add to the already imbalanced gender equation; if they took care that their little boys did not turn oppressors; if they understood that infringing on another’s personal space couldn’t be written off as ‘boys being boys’.

If we need to move forward as a society, it is critical that each of us have the freedom to go about our daily activities without watching over our backs. More women in the workforce are good for the economy; inclusive spaces are good for everyone! How can we engage with all stakeholders in this society to edge our way towards a gender-equal world? How can we subvert the patriarchy and create an environment of respect, empathy, equality and humanity?

Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments! Let us take this conversation forward… Let us work towards creating a better future… For our girls and our boys…

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P.S….If you are in Hyderabad and support the need for creating safe spaces for women, you can join me and VOICE 4 Girls as we take the Freedom Walk, on August 15. Let us band together and raise our voices for freedom from this fear,

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Disclaimer: The author of this blog, Malini Gopalakrishnan is the Content and Communications Officer at VOICE 4 Girls. The thoughts, opinions, and ideas expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of VOICE.

Her Voice Disha – Stepping Towards a Bright Future

“The great thing in the world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

Where do we find our sense of direction? Does it come from our immediate environments or through introspection?Most often it a combination of the two; VOICE’s philosophy fittingly emphasizes the need for the right information to reach marginalized adolescent girls so that they can map their futures to the best of their capacities and social realities.

 

As VOICE4Girls concludes its very last camp for the summer program of 2017, the atmosphere is jubilant – an emotion shared by every member of the extended VOICE family. About 261 students from 21 KGBV schools across Mahbubnagar district participated in the “Her Voice Disha Camp”, June-July 2017. 

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While Parichay camps introduced concepts focusing on self-awareness, safety, puberty, and rights, Disha’s curriculum builds on this foundation and explores themes around sexual health, growing up, planning, health, and nutrition.

The girls bring with them a very different energy and outlook to the Disha Camp, they are grounded, obviously having absorbed much of the information from the Parichay Camps, but certainly not missing any of the zeal and inspiration that is so true to their nature. Day 5 of the ten-day camp particularly pays attention to understanding mental health as a stand-alone concept but also an essential factor for overall physical health as well. So, assuring is the affirmation for the day, “I will love and look after myself” that promotes a positive self-image, taking care of self and nutrition.

Day 6 builds a momentum that is delightful to witness with the chapter “I am growing up”. Growing up as part of the adolescent process can be a very personal and critical juncture in one’s life, it is the time when one understands and questions identity? The idea of identity as homogeneously scripted and given to us is largely what we are conditioned to, but identities have many facets to them that can be comprehended to accommodate the many differences that makes up the human race. These many differences in identity take into account geography, culture, gender, body and experiences that are unique to an individual. Discussions around this is always a process of challenging the typecasts that society bestows upon us. Engaging with the girls at an age when identity formation can be moulded in the direction towards self-discovery and critical thinking is a responsibility, and one that is optimistically taken up by VOICE’s counsellors very seriously.

Sexual and reproductive health is still a very taboo topic, and providing young adolescent girls with this crucial information becomes necessary to address the sex ratio, infant mortality rates and maternal mortality rates of the country. These indicators are markers of social development for communities and the larger society, which Dr. B.R Ambedkar has justifiably put forth, I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”

The girls are enthused to share their everyday learnings not only with their counsellors who are conducting the classes, but also with their other classmates who attended the previous cycle of the camp. “The conversations and laughter and never ending”, shares a counsellor who facilitating the Disha Camp for the first time. Planning for the future involves providing the girls with necessary tools such as – understanding how to map out future educational opportunities, how to approach relationships that are healthy and productive for the self, and community and most importantly to take charge of a future that is self-made.

Embracing the changes that come with adolescence has never been an easy transition, and especially for girls from marginalized communities that lack the positive role models that can provide the much-needed direction, Voice4Girls shares this “DISHA” with them with open hearts and best wishes!

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Pavana V. P.