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.