Happy Children’s Day!

What is it about children? Sure, they are just bursting at the seams with cuteness–curls, dimpled hands, twinkly eyes, missing teeth and what have you! Then there’s the iridescent energy bubbling just under the surface (other times without the trouble of disguise so unbridled and tumultuous). And it IS true that children alone possess the means to produce happiness simply by virtue of presence… is it any wonder that homes light up with festive spirit and cheer when there’s a little munchkin running amok?

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But there is something more isn’t there? To be ‘like a child’ is distinctly appealing while I am yet to hear someone boasting of living ‘like an adult’ (adolescent aspiration of a fairy tale life of ‘freedom’, though laughable are notwithstanding).

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When I think about children or childhood, I think of magic! What do I mean by that? Let me explain…

A few days back, my colleague and I paid a visit to a minority welfare residential school, on the outskirts of Hyderabad. Since VOICE 4 Girls will be conducting camps for girls from minority welfare schools later this month, our partner organisation wanted us to take a few pictures with the girls at one of these schools. We were introduced to a class of girls studying in class seven, though in age and build, there was variety– girls’ ages ranging between 11 and 14, some clearly pre-teen and others emulating ‘lady-like’ qualities indicative of them making the physical transition into womanhood. Make no mistake, they were all children. As we explained to our rapt audience, that we would soon be conducting camps where they’s be learning exciting and interesting things about themselves and their bodies, their rights and their futures, there was pin drop silence. Half an hour and one energizer later, we struck gold! The lobby-turned-classroom echoed with the sound of laughter and excited voices clambering over each other to catch ‘Akka’s’ attention. Life is not a walk in the park for these girls; the only constant is strife and struggle. Yet, one silly song about a monkey and his monkey tricks had these children roaring with laughter and clapping with boundless joy! And oh! Their eyes! We could have powered a small town with the collective sparkle in those eyes! MAGIC!!!

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I think that’s what makes childhood so precious… Why it is so very crucial that the sparkle in those eyes be protected… So very promising to fuel their dreams—floating on little boats, but the largest amount of conviction billowing their sails.

Happy Children’s Day everyone… May we all learn to practice the brand of magic these children wield. Like Roald Dahl once said,

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

 

 

Amplifying our ‘VOICE’s- An ode to our supporters!

It is that time of the year again… The ‘Puja’ season. While the weather turns nippy and the days get shorter, there is a palpable feeling of excitement in the air! Fairy lights in every colour go up on houses and stores, allowances are made to indulge in shopping and good food and there’s mounting optimism in every heart—it’s like magic. As the countdown of festivals leading right up to New Year begin, there is little wonder that this is the season of generosity. October marks the ‘Joy of Giving’ season; we at VOICE 4 Girls have been busy planning for a fundraising campaign to be launched on October 11, the International Day of the Girl Child.

As participants of the Daan Utsav 2016, we had a stall put up at the Sethe Mela, at Gandhi Medical College on the 1st and 2nd of October. It was wonderful to meet people from different walks of life and talk about the work that we at VOICE are doing.

With all this excitement and anticipation in the air, we can’t help but feel nostalgic about all of the support and love we and our campers have received. So we caught up with a few of them, each of whom has, in their own way, supported VOICE and become part of our extended family.

Lakshmi Shankar, a music instructor and whipper-upper of mouthwatering baked goodies, is a loving friend and do-gooder with the VOICE family. Last year, Lakshmi extended her invaluable support to us by baking us some heavenly goodies to sell at the Seva Mela, 2015!

“I was introduced to VOICE 4 Girls by Sharanya Gautam (in the picture), Assistant Director, who happens to be my niece. I was inspired by the work that VOICE is doing. I think it is very important in today’s culture and environment to focus on giving back. I think young people should be taught to participate in providing solutions to rampant social issues. I was particularly happy to see that college girls are involved in the VOICE model and that they are mentored to become role models for their campers. I was glad to do my bit at the Seva Mela last year,” Lakshmi says. She adds, “A girl is a crucial element of society; she can initiate change. I think what is most essential is to empower girls by giving them courage and confidence. That is what is lacking; if they are given the required encouragement they can really change the world!’

Another wonderful human being who extended her support and love to VOICE is Madhuri Gunti, Coordinator at CIEE, Hyderabad. Madhuri first heard about VOICE through some students of hers who had worked with VOICE 4 Girls. After hearing about the program, Malathi visited a VOICE Camp so see the magic firsthand. She has been a generous donor to our cause…

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“I was amazed and incredibly motivated by my experience at VOICE Camp! Spending the day with young girls and seeing the kind of activities conducted and the information that these girls receive. Given the crimes and discrimination that young girls face today, it is important to raise awareness about these issues. At VOICE Camp, girls learn about their bodies and about ways to keep themselves safe. In addition, they learn about their rights (with respect to education, protection from abuse and delaying marriage). Empowering girls with this information is very important,” says Madhuri.

When speaking of VOICE’s support system, we cannot go without mentioning Bonnie Sue Zara,  who is an advocate for increasing girls’ self-confidence, assertiveness, and efficacy both the US and also in India. Bonnie led a group of students from the University of Wyoming to organize a fundraiser for VOICE there. She also visited VOICE Camps along with her students and spent time getting to know the campers.

Says Bonnie, “I have been researching low-income girls’ and women’s challenges in Andhra Pradesh since 2007, and I have helped bring attention to these challenges here in Wyoming and also all across the United States through our donor mailing campaign and my connections with Stanford University. (She is an alumna of Stanford.) Voice4Girls has an incredible curriculum. They make learning fun and thus increase the chance of girls remembering the skills and knowledge they have discussed. They also are careful to be true to traditional ideas and values while simultaneously enabling girls’ imaginations to soar beyond what they see around them. It is a truly inspiring mission, and I am very proud to have formed a group to support Voice4Girls!”

Another magnanimous donor is a gentleman from Mumbai who wishes to stay anonymous. He had made a generous contribution to VOICE 4 Girls after watching a small presentation about our work at an event last year. When asked what drew him to extend his support to VOICE, no questions asked, he replied saying that there are certain causes that one feels an instant attachment to. He explains, “I have in my time known some amazing women; I have grown up with sisters and have always felt a keen empathy towards the issues faced by them. I truly believe that supporting girls and empowering young women can spark a change for generations ahead, educating a girl is the most empowering thing you can do for her. It is this belief that made him feel an instant connection towards VOICE 4 Girls. Urging us to carry on doing good work he says, “To cite a quote from Schindler’s List, ‘Whoever saves a life, saves the world entire.'”

What wonderful words… We hope that as we kick off our fundraiser on October 11, 2016, these words encourage you to join hands with us. Help VOICE 4 Girls raise funds to conduct 25 VOICE Camps and help over 600 girls find their voices! Coming soon…

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.