Pooja and Laxmi

By: Ilana Shushansky

It was my first day doing pre-assessment interviews with Ecta (an employee of our partnering organization Ignis Careers) with some middle and high-school girls at Adarsh Vidayala High School in Hyderabad.  This preliminary research, leading up to the girls’ summer camp, is aimed at determining the girls’ level of English proficiency as well as their knowledge and comfort of gender related issues.  The majority of conversations took place in Hindi, so I was really more of a prop then a contributing researcher.  Nevertheless, I was presently surprised at how much I could follow simply by observing the girls facial expressions and noticing their level of comfort in answering questions.  They smiled and talked excitedly of their favorite television shows and their aspirations to become doctors and scientists.  The mood softened when they began to speak about their relationship with their mothers and fathers, and they were usually embarrassed when asked to name a quality about themselves that they liked. And I knew exactly when questions were asked about naming female body parts or if they knew what pregnancy was because of the uniform looks of confusion spread across their faces.  As a product of American public schools talking to a group of 12 to 16 year old girls, this knowledge gap was astonishing to me even after spending almost a year acquainting to Hyderabadi culture.

There was one 6th grade student, Pooja, who spoke fluent English, most likely a function of her father being a computer operator (the majority of students in the affordable private school sector we are targeting are the children of auto drivers or day laborers).  At one point, to help Pooja feel comfortable speaking freely about her own body, the three of us in the room entered into a debate as to whether Ecta or myself was fatter.  Pooja first thought I was heavier, but after making us stand up for further inspection, changed her mind.  Needless to say, Pooja is not a girl who suffers from confidence issues.  Most girls in Hyderabad, and throughout India, however, do not feel as open and free as Pooja.  Nikitha, the 7th grade girl who we spoke with after Pooja, broke down in tears when the conversation shifted towards such ideas of self-confidence and she had to leave the interview.

We also interviewed two teachers from the school about signing up to be camp counselors for the summer.  Sana is both a teacher and holds a mid-level management position at the school, is divorced, and raising two children.  Laxmi, after speaking excitedly about the possibilities of giving young girls a space to express themselves and their ideas freely, informed me that see would have to get permission from her husband before committing to being a counselor.

At the end of the day, despite only understanding 75% of what verbally went on, the necessity of the project we are undertaking was clearer than ever.  Hyderabad, India, and cultures all around the world are full of Pooja’s and Sana’s living unknowingly right next door to Nikitha’s and Laxmi’s.  No space exists, however, for the two worlds to let each other know they are there, and to help each other grow as strong women within their cultural contexts.

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