Listening to the Girls: The Importance of Grassroots Programming

By Averil Spencer

The aim of international development organizations is to create effective programming that will improve the lives of their target populations. With this goal in mind it is incredible how many agencies are not able to come close to their objectives because they fail to take into account the actual needs of the local people. Frequently, we see programs that appear to be impeccably designed and run, but cultural or gendered contexts are not taken into account and the program does not work in a certain community. The decisions are donor driven and in this process the local people are further marginalized. Development work aims to give a voice back to the people but this will never happen if organizations take on a paternalistic approach to aid. Programming is for the people and should have input from these same people.

VOICE strongly believes developing our program based on grassroots support and buy-in. In order to empower a marginalized subset of the population, the desire and drive to change the current situation must come from them. In the case of adolescent girls, we can help them see the gender inequalities they face, but they must take it upon themselves to use the tools developed during camp (confidence, sense of self-worth, communication, conflict management, and negotiation kills) work within their cultural and religious constraints. These girls will one day become women and mothers who can either promote a progressive cycle of women’s agency or be a restrictive force bound to harmful cultural ideals.

As VOICE beings to adapt the curriculum from last year into three modules of content, we set off to learn from girls about their problems, possible solutions, likes, and dislikes, especially when it camp it interviewing camp girls about the previous curriculum. Camp and non-camp girls from grades 7-10 were gathered in a room, and we began by talking about favorite subjects in school and slowly moved towards problems they or their friends faced in their communities. Working with youth from a different culture who speak English but not good enough to have a robust discussion is a challenge to say the least. We tried to have translators present but that was not always possible and something always got lost in the back and fourth. Our goal was to gain a greater understanding of the problems girls face, but outwardly asking this question gave generic answers like dowry, female infanticide, and child labor that did not seem to connect to the lives of these young women. They had no stories of their own to tell about these issues. It wasn’t until we asked, “what are you afraid of” that girls loosened up and began to talk to us.

“Dogs!” shouted a few girls and laughter filled the room.

“Walking on the street” added another girl, with nods of approval form other in the group.
Finally, multiple people chorused “BOYS!,” which launched the group into a frenzy of conversation.

Boys are a problem for adolescent girls across Hyderabad (and probably around the world). In Hyderabad, they are sometimes called “Roadside Romeos,” a breed of young man who hassles girls as they walk home. We probed further and girls suddenly told stories of boys teasing them in school and harassing them on the street. They spoke of being uncomfortable but also sometimes wanted into flirt back in certain situations. They were scared because they did not know what was appropriate. We began to understand the strict gender separation in Hyderabad creates limited interaction for girls and boys after puberty. And after puberty, those few interactions were not pleasant for girls.

We held focus groups in 6 schools around the city, and the desire to understand male-female relationships was a topic brought up everywhere. Girls want to understand the mentality of boys. Other interesting issues highlighted were limited mobility and restricted educational opportunities. Girls in Hyderabad, especially Muslim girls, are not let out of the house after puberty. Parents fear for the girls’ safety but also the family name because girls’ actions are tied to the family honor. These girls want to be able to move freely within their communities and pursue education. Hearing their stories and seeing them prioritize certain issues gave us a stronger framework for the curriculum. We now know that content of the curriculum is important to provide a base of information for the girls, but more importantly, these girls need to learn how to effectively communicate and negotiate with people in positions of power, parents, brothers, community members, if they are going to be able to advance their own agenda.

Development programs of the past have been donor driven and not taken into account the voices of the individuals and communities where they work. After living and working in the field, I see no other way to structure a program than to have input from girls throughout the entire process. If the program is not developed to help provide solutions to their problems, then the program has failed to reach its goals. Grassroots endeavors are more sustainable and effective because they are tailored to the needs of the individual and community.


Visiting Diamond Mission High School

By Kashay Sanders

The question was asked, “How many of your parents don’t want you to study beyond 10th class?”
I looked around the room. Roughly half the girls had their hand up. Of the girls who had their hands down—
“What? Ruheena?” I paused.
Another teacher and I looked at each other. Ruheena has to be one of the smartest girls in Class 10, and her hand was down. “Ruheena, your parents don’t want you to study beyond 10th class?”
She shook her head no. My heart sank, and my heat-induced fatigue was replaced by an angry adrenaline rush.
It was two days of that. Stories. Some heartbreaking, like Ruheena’s, others uplifting. The VOICE curriculum development team went out into the field about two weeks ago, to hear from girls, both VOICE and non-VOICE participants, about what THEY believe are the biggest issues facing girls.
The girls were surprising—in some classrooms the quiet girl would suddenly raise her hand and state that she thinks women should have equal opportunities. In another, after giggling nervously at the introduction of “the body” topic, one student stated that she wanted to understand why her mother told her not to eat papaya during her period. They had questions, thoughts, opinions—most of which they had likely never discussed at all, or never discussed openly. I saw curiosity spark in the eyes of the girls who had not gone through VOICE Camp and a thirst for more from the girls who had.
Boys are also a major source of fear and anxiety for our girls. Girls reported being followed home by men, being yelled at on the street or made fun of in class.
In one VOICE school, Lohia’s Little Angels, all the girls sat on the floor, many of them eager to participate. There was one student, the obvious ring-leader—a class 10 girl, who sat up straight, friends on either side. She said something to the effect of, “Before VOICE, I could not stand up to boys. I was afraid when they yelled at me on the streets. Now I stand up for myself.” She shared with the class a few snarky comments she has said to boys who said inappropriate things to her and the class laughed.
She was not a unique case. At the VOICE schools we visited, girls said they felt good about being a girl and that the camp dispelled the crippling fear of speaking up—from the classroom to the outside world. They felt themselves worth fighting for, and it was incredible to hear them articulate that it was, expressly, because of this program.
What VOICE does, more than teach these girls English or even life skills, is help them put a name to the issues they face. It does not make their problems go away, by any means. Maybe Ruheena won’t get the chance to go to college. I’m not sure. But, the camp is valuable because once you can express worries, anxieties, fears, hopes, dreams—you instantly have the power of self-awareness. Self-awareness lends itself to self-advocacy. Doing this with a group of other young women creates a platform for these girls to do so confidently, because they know they are not alone in what they feel. And an awareness of one’s worth as a woman is generational. When a mother has it, a daughter does too. Progress ensues.
I do not intend to give up on Ruheena, by the way.

Raising our VOICES to the Next Level

As a start-up nonprofit, the three of us at VOICE have been keeping our heads to the ground, working around the clock, and out in the field, turning our proposals and planning into reality.  So much so, that the last blog post was from back before camp!  After this hard work put into the pilot program, we have taken a step back and are looking at how we can get more stakeholders on board, reach more girls, and further improve our product by understanding what adolescent girls need to know so they can grow to be happier, healthier women.

With these efforts, we connected with Dasra (, an organization committed to expanding the outreach and social impact of social entrepreneurs by providing education on common challenges and opportunities to build our network of partners.  We were thrilled to be accepted into their 6th cohort of Dasra Social Impact, a three week training course focused on everything from theories of change, business pitches, communication strategies, scaling impact seminars, and gaining funding.

So off I went to mumbai to connect with 42 other representatives from organizations large and small, all doing innovative work in the social sphere in India.  Sitting in the room the first night and looking around, I was struck by the impressive organizations we were surrounded by, all looking for additional support in reaching large targets of beneficiaries or developing new verticals to further their missions.  What was surprising but very exciting was the number of organizations focused on education, and particularly those with focus on supporting girls.

The next day started with a session on funding, where I was actually impressed to know that a number of funding organizations firmly believe in the power of educating girl children, and that fact alone is not one we have to work to “prove”.  Instead, they now want to know specifically how our solution addresses the prevalent problems that girls face, and further, they wanted to know what makes us different and unique from the other organizations out there trying to address the same problems!  We were then pushed to think about what is you “Theory of Change”.

This is a pretty new concept within the nonprofit world, where you pitch the mission and vision to the curb and instead think through the logic model of: “If I could change this problem, then this would be the initial outcome.  And given that initial outcome, this is how the world will be better in the long run.”  The concept is simple, yet complex.  In fact, I sat with a pad of paper and pencil for hours, scratching through words, rewriting and really trying to distill my thoughts down to the core of how we see our program systematically changing the lives of women.

I had about 24 hours of soul searching in fact, I sat at lunch with a number of individuals from established Indian organizations, answering various questions about what VOICE is and what we do. They broke into their own conversation around the power of what English can do for people from low income communities and the social and economical value that it brings people.  This ignited the thoughts that I was trying to put together the whole time! I finished my meal quickly, and sprinted back to the conference room to write the two basic sentences that comprise our theory of change:

If girls had an engaging way to learn English while addressing other barriers causing gender inequality, then their confidence and communication skills would improve.  Over time, this increase in social value and marketable skills, will help girls grow up to be strong, independent women with the power to succeed.

With this in mind, we firmly believe Girls can, and should, be a catalyst for change within their families and communities not only in Hyderabad, India, but globally.