Silent, No More…

We are frequently asked by those who are new to VOICE’s work about the kind of change that we see and hope to see in the girls we reach out to through camps. I think every member of our family has been quick to come up with examples and instances – we tell them how confident our girls become, how they start talking to their families about the importance of staying in school, or about the dangers of early marriage and pregnancies, we talk about the numerous instances where girls stood up for their fundamental rights, reported wrongs, we speak of change. Some of this change takes years to be seen for what it is – nothing short of a miracle; while other forms of change transpire overnight.

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Such an incident came to light at VOICE Camps that were conducted across certain government schools in Telangana. Girls who attended the camp, approached their counsellors and appealed to them about repeated instances of physical abuse and caste-discrimination that they had had to face at the hands of teachers in their schools. The girls, who have seen incredible hardships in their young lives, had started to believe that school was just another hellish ordeal for them to survive. However, coming to VOICE Camp, the girls felt something very different – they felt safe. As girls learnt about their rights  and the meaning of abuse, counsellors started getting reports from student after student.

The schoolgirls spoke of harsh punishments – verbally and physically abusive in nature – being doled out by some of their teachers. Caste-based-discrimination was also found to be rampant. Girls belonging to ‘lower’ castes were talked down to, and asked to keep distance from the others! “I want to study, but if this is the only way for me to achieve that, I would rather sit at home!”, one emotional camper told her Akka.  Apart from these nightmarish issues at school, there were also confessions of trouble back at home. One 14-year-old spoke of mounting pressures from her parents to get married, a prospect that was worrying her to no end.

In training counselors to teach girls at camp, VOICE conducts a session on non-disclosure – it is not uncommon for girls to confide in their counselors about issues that they are facing.  Counselors are trained on how to handle such issues. The key messages of the session are: empathizing with the student, listening without interrupting, not asking a student to repeat narrating a painful account, never accusing or blaming and most of all discretion. Counselors are instructed on channels by which they should report issues raised by their students, so that they may be addressed by the most suitable authority.

In this case, VOICE Counselors reported back to the staff with letters written by several students, filled with accounts of the trials they were facing. These girls had even signed the letters. Understanding the sensitivity of the issues, and wanting to protect children from more pointed attacks, their names were left out of formal complaints made to the government authorities by VOICE staff.

And then… change. Within weeks, students reported of corrective action taken to ensure that girls are not disciplined by any use of force; they seemed delighted to see how the staff started treating their girls with more respect. The government body even conducted an intervention for the 14-year-old, she is going to stay in school and marry only after she’s 18!

The girls were happy that something had changed; gladder still that their VOICEs had made this change possible. Wide-eyed wonder to see that wee-girls like them could stand up for their rights!

 

As I See It… An Experience with VOICE

“The educated ones leave, the ones with the potential to right the wrongs. They leave the weak behind. The tyrants continue to reign because the weak cannot resist. Do you not see that it is a cycle? Who will break that cycle?”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus

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Stepping inside the KGBV School*, I could instantly hear the chatter of dozens of voices of campers. I slowly made my way through the halls and tried to sneak into a class without disturbing the girls learning inside, clutching my Canon with sweaty hands. As I nudged the door open to a classroom named Malala Yousafzai, at least thirty pairs of eyes shot up in my direction, wide with curiosity. Not a moment later, the girls greeted me with a “Good Morning” in unison, loud and clear. I replied with a beaming smile and snuck around to the back of the class to take some photographs. The girls giggled timidly for a few seconds, then immediately got back to working on their group activity, focused on their task. They were in the middle of a lesson on how to solve conflicts and negotiate with their peers and family. They might not have realized it, but in that moment each one of those girls was finding her voice.

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I found VOICE4Girls on a whim while searching for organizations in India that focused on educating the girl child. Many NGOs had a similar sort of outlook and approach towards their work in this particular sector, but the VOICE model was strikingly unique. Their focus is on a long-term impact to empower adolescent girls within marginalized communities in India. The reason I found VOICE4Girls compelling and effective as an organization is that they are teaching young girls how to think, not what to think.

In a nutshell, VOICE conducts 10-day activity-based camps for teenage girls in government schools and low-cost private schools throughout India, imparting a curriculum focused on critical knowledge about health, safety, and rights, with an added knowledge about spoken English. Many, if not all, of these girls find themselves unable to advocate for themselves or control their future decisions. VOICE gives them role models in the form of their counselors, who are college students trained to be their peers (speaking to them in the local language), as well as their teachers. The counselors take them through the Parichay curriculum in the summer, focusing on puberty, safety, fundamental rights, building confidence, solving conflicts, strengths and weaknesses, identifying and preventing abuse, and defining beauty. They then come back in the winter to take the same girls through the Disha curriculum, focusing on topics like continuing education, seeking careers, financial planning, sexual and reproductive health, and defining a hero.

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 During my time with VOICE, I’ve had the revelation that gender is an extremely difficult conversation to have; it encounters an immediate, inherent resistance. It demands the unlearning of information that is embedded into the mindsets of these girls and the individuals around them. VOICE campers have internalized ideas that stem from a rigidly patriarchal society – they feel inferior, exhibit low self-esteem, don’t imagine themselves as capable, beautiful, or strong, and often think that abuse, physically or emotionally, is acceptable and “normal”. The particular camp I went to in Mahabubnagar, Telangana, India was a KGBV school, consisting of a demographic of girls who are predominantly Muslim, and whose parents are farmers or low-wage workers. They come from poverty, strife, and a setting where they are never given the chance to focus on their own interests, desires, or futures. These VOICE camps give them a way to focus on themselves, giving them an alternative view to life that eliminates child marriage and encourages economic and social independence. The transformation that these girls go through in the matter of a few days is extraordinary. Through maintaining contact with these girls throughout the Parichay and Disha camps, counselors are able to further train them to become Sakhis, where the girls have a responsibility to go out and invoke change into their communities using their newfound knowledge and voice. At that point, they no longer need an external push to make a difference; they take every opportunity they can to help girls around them who haven’t had the same experience that VOICE gives. VOICE camps have reached out to over 31,000 girls in India so far, and rate of outreach for the organization is astonishing.

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Through my internship with VOICE, I’ve written up case studies, created promotional videos and digital content through photography and design, assisted with communication, helped with the recruitment process for counselors, facilitated in creating curriculum and content, and met the most incredible, inspiring group of young women who embraced me for the days that I spent with them at camp. I’ve also been inspired by the VOICE team, whose passion towards this cause is unparalleled. They’re some of the few people out there who have committed to be a part of the solution; they are not desensitized to the injustice and inequality that women face on a daily basis. They’re battling the oldest system of oppression that exists, and they’re a part of the conversation.

You can be a part of the conversation too. Visit voice4girls.org for more.

* Kasturba Gandhi Baalika Vidyalaya (KGBV) is a scheme launched for setting up residential schools for girls belonging to the SC, ST, OBC and minority communities. This scheme is being implemented in across the state where the female rural literacy is below the national average and gender gap in literacy is above the national average. The scheme provides for a minimum reservation of 75% of the seats for girls belonging to SC, ST, OBC or minority communities and priority for the remaining 25%, to girls from families below poverty line.

-Anvita Devineni is currently an undergraduate student at Washington University in St. Louis majoring in PNP: Philosophy-Neuroscience Psychology with a minor in Global Health.

A Whole Lot of Scottish Love!

It has been a very busy time at VOICE 4 Girls. These last two months have seen us conduct back-to-back camps in Uttar Pradesh and Telangana. In betwixt the chaos of ‘Camp season’, and at the start of Sakhi Peer Leadership Camp, conducted at Telangana Social Welfare Schools, we were lucky to have a visit from the good people at Scottish Love in Action at the Social Welfare Residential school, Kammadanam (one of three locations where this particular camp is being conducted)!

To give you a little background here, Scottish Love in Action or SLA, is a charity based Edinburgh, Scotland. The organization has been funding a home and school for over 500 destitute children in the East Godavari District, Andhra Pradesh. SLA raises funds to support the housing, clothing, education and health care of these children, a lot of who come from marginalized communities and tragic circumstances.

Now looking to expand their operations, SLA has taken a keen interest in backing the work being done by VOICE 4 Girls. Though they have visited VOICE before, this was their first time experiencing a VOICE camp firsthand. The team who visited India, consisting of Gillie Davidson (Founder and Chairperson); Colin McRae (Executive Director) and Vicki Watson (Fundraising and Communications Manager).

VOICE staff met the team at Kammadanam, just as the sun started to chase the light winter chill from the air. A meeting with the Principal, Mrs. Sahida, who is a champion of young girls’ education and empowerment was in order. She has been an ardent supporter of the VOICE Camps, this being the third successive camp after Parichay and Disha camps. “There is such a great change we see in girls after they go through VOICE Camps; they become more confident, more aware and want to achieve more!” she exclaimed. “The difference can even be seen in their academics. I think if you give them the confidence and help one facet of their personalities, the rest of it just follows,” said the educator.

After the brief chat, Gillie, Colin and Vicki proceeded towards different classrooms to observe and assimilate how VOICE Camps are delivered. The day’s lesson which involved an activity that required girls to go from group to group like ‘butterflies spreading pollen’ exchanging and accumulating ideas of what they would each like to improve in their own communities. The Campers didn’t fall short of amazing everyone with their ideas!

“I want to stop child marriage! Just recently a friend of mine got married. It disturbed me a great deal… she wanted something else for herself! She’s a young girl just like me!” said M Lavanya, a fiery camper of Class 9.

“I want to start a program in my community where young and old people can get better training in spoken English,” said A Manasa.

“I want to work towards getting women the same treatment as men do at the workplace. Women are treated and paid less than men. It’s not fair!” said A Maina with great feeling.

 

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The girls, all leaders in their own right, made ample clear their potential to change the world around them. Seasoned from two prior VOICE Camps, these girls are powerhouses of confidence, energy and determination! It is a great credit to the fantastic young counsellors, Samadrita Chakraborty, Nayana Raj, Priyanshi Bahadur, Ponnapalli Srilekha and the managerial guru, V Sai Shubhangi who as Field Coordinator managed the camp sp flawlessly! So much admiration for all these young girls and women!

Energised and enthused from the charged classroom, the SLA team also took the time to have a group discussion with select campers. Gillie, in her soothing and soft voice, had the campers rapt with attention as she told them that they each were unique and beautiful. You could see that each camper, sat straighter believing and assimilating her words.

To end their visit, Colin got everyone involved in an activity he called ‘the Human Firework‘!

What a day! We are so thankful to these wonderful people who are going to be campaigning for VOICE 4 Girls all the way back in Scotland to raise funds that will send hundreds of girls to VOICE Camps! We can’t wait to see them again!