Powering up ‘VOICE’s in Tamil Nadu

Often underestimated is how much agony and affliction can be alleviated simply by the act of someone being there to lend an ear- we stand humbled at receiving that lesson yet again…

August has been a big month for us at VOICE. We conducted two successful pilots-‘Sakhi Peer Leadership Camp’ at the Telangana Rural Welfare Residential School at Mahendra Hills and the first ever ‘Her VOICE Parichay’ camp in Minjur, Tamil Nadu. The Parichay Camp was conducted in partnership with TNSSA and UNICEF for 31 girls of classes 6 to 9. The girls, from SRDS Undu Uraivida Palli and Sahaya Matha residential schools, were educated about vital issues like health, menstruation, nutrition, safety, gender-related violence and discrimination.

 

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The camp was an eye-opener for us in so many ways. For one thing, these children, hailing from streets and slums where cut-throat is the only way to survive, presented several behavioral manifestations of their disturbed ‘home’ environments. It was no small feat to urge our campers to acquiesce and to settle into their ‘classroom’. They openly challenged their counsellors, flouting instruction and refusing to participate in activities. Slowly, things settled and fell into a misshapen pattern. Despite their troubles, or maybe because of them, these campers are incredibly bright, quick on the uptake and street-smart (literally). The camp counsellors were kept on their toes, answering questions they had never anticipated. The energy in the classroom was almost fiery.

Slowly too, did issues of violence, abuse and neglect come to light. The chapter on recognizing and reporting violence was met with distress and tears. Many of the girls later confided that they had been subjected to violence and abuse time and time again. A flux of emotions – anger, fear, despair and shame packed into frail little frames. In most cases, the abuse was ongoing, ever present and all-consuming. The stories were heartbreaking; these girls were not aware that they were being wronged in the worst possible way. Guilt and shame weighed them down. Campers were encouraged to come forth with their stories, they were assured that abuse is not something they did but something criminal that was being done to them. The school staff was enlisted to step in, by bringing in counsellors for the girls and to disallow these children from being taken back to their abusive homes.

If there was ever a need to reach out, it was here;  if there was ever a need for hope to be ingrained, it was here. Even though the camp was only conducted for the girls between classes 6 and 9, VOICE staff was cherished and loved by most every little busybody in the school. Arriving at school for camp each morning to rising cheers of ‘Vandittangu!’ (They have arrived!) from weathered little faces decorated with grins, each day was truly beautiful. Even as camp concluded and VOICE packed up; children with beautiful eyes urged the staff to stay on. A not-so-subtle reminder of how much in need of love they are; or perhaps they just need someone to listen to them and believe in them.

As the powerful wielder of words Toni Morrison said,  ‘The death of self-esteem can occur quickly, easily in children, before their ego has “legs,” so to speak. Couple the vulnerability of youth with indifferent parents, dismissive adults, and a world, which, in its language, laws, and images, re-enforces despair, and the journey to destruction is sealed.’

Can we all change that journey? Yes, all you need is an open heart and an empathetic ear.

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