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.

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