Disha Camp 2017 – Hearing VOICEs of Hope

“Hello Akka, Hi Akka, ni peru eniti?” (Akka, what is your name?)

Enquired a multitude of voices, within minutes of my arriving at Her VOICE Disha camp, at Telangana Social Welfare School in Kammadanam. Having only recently moved to Hyderabad from Mumbai, I couldn’t understand then what these girls were asking me – little did I know then, that I would be tutored and coached by the most spirited young girls!

IMG_20171209_165424

About six months back, I chanced on Voice 4 Girls’ handle on Twitter and found myself completely intrigued. So much so, I applied for a job, even though it meant moving to a different state! As luck would have it, a few months later, I found myself in a rural district of Telangana, for my first experience at VOICE camp!

The 10-day camp definitely changed my life and opened my eyes!

Kammadanam was one of 9 locations in Telangana where VOICE was conducting the Her VOICE Disha Camps. At ‘my’ location, 380 campers (students), 11 counsellors (trained college students) and a field coordinator have come together for one larger goal – to equip teenage girls for their future.  I was all set to join the movement – to learn and share all that I could!

IMG_20171206_112556

“I will be strong and make my future bright!” The voices, filled with enthusiasm and conviction, resound in every corridor of the school, perfectly synchronized and giving me goosebumps! After the affirmation (they have a new one for each day), girls are ready to start the day on a high note.

This is a government school, and girls here come from very underprivileged backgrounds. In addition to all the pressures these girls face, they lack basic knowledge about things like health, safety, and rights – putting them at risk of violence, discrimination, low literacy, early marriage, teen pregnancy etc.

Looking at their beaming faces and the hope in each of their eyes, I felt more driven than ever to do something for them.

Over the next 10 days, I came to understand the content that VOICE is delivering at these camps. The content of Disha focuses on subjects like – physical and mental health, the importance of education and careers, future and family planning, negotiation, and even gender diversity.  I thought it would be extremely overwhelming for these girls to learn so much about such complex issues, some of which are even considered taboo. But the campers proved me absolutely wrong. They listened to their Akkas (counsellors) eagerly, especially since these sensitive topics are dealt with through activities fun-based games.

I think the most challenging day for the counsellors was Day 6. Campers explored more their identities and learning about various feelings that they might experience as they grow up – closeness, commitment, and attraction. Campers also explored aspects of gender identity and sexuality in this chapter.
Initially, I could sense some reluctance in the classroom, but soon, the counsellors were deftly fielding a barrage of questions. It was very tough to handle this intense curiosity, but at the end of that day, girls left with widened horizons. It was indeed an amazing session!

It had become a routine for me and kids to meet after their classes. Every day, they would ask me, “Thinnava” (Have you eaten?). From them I have learned so many Telugu words. A girl said to me, “I would always wonder, ‘Why do these girls cry on the last day of the camp?’ Now, I can relate to them.” That is what a VOICE camp does to you. The bond that I formed with these campers will be something I will cherish always. The faith, trust and love I received has determined me to work harder for them and their futures.

IMG_20171214_113235

Before we knew it, it was the last day of the camp. The air around our campers was thick with excitement (girls were ready to put up a show on the last day) and tinged with the sadness of leaving their Akkas behind. The final performance beautifully showcased the amount of knowledge, confidence, and courage girls have gained in these 10 days. They were full of energy while performing their sets and each performance was spectacular!

As I set out to leave with the counsellors, girls surrounded us with their final goodbyes and long messages. Two girls came to me and gave me a card that was drawn and decorated so creatively. I was overwhelmed with love and affection. As I looked back, I knew that nothing would keep me away from these camps!

 

……………………………………………………………………..

The author of this blog entry is Saleha Paatwala, who recently joined the VOICE team as Content and Communications Officer. 

 

Advertisements

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.

20171019_110049

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

IMG_20171125_121012469_HDR

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!

image4.jpeg

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

Warmly,

Anusha Bharadwaj

Executive Director

That Elusive Freedom…

 

4993626426_4b9479c9fa_b.jpg

“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!”

********************

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?

pexels-photo-114021.jpeg

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…

1280px-Commercial_st.jpg

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,

************************************************

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.