We are frequently asked by those who are new to VOICE’s work about the kind of change that we see and hope to see in the girls we reach out to through camps. I think every member of our family has been quick to come up with examples and instances – we tell them how confident our girls become, how they start talking to their families about the importance of staying in school, or about the dangers of early marriage and pregnancies, we talk about the numerous instances where girls stood up for their fundamental rights, reported wrongs, we speak of change. Some of this change takes years to be seen for what it is – nothing short of a miracle; while other forms of change transpire overnight.
Such an incident came to light at VOICE Camps that were conducted across certain government schools in Telangana. Girls who attended the camp, approached their counsellors and appealed to them about repeated instances of physical abuse and caste-discrimination that they had had to face at the hands of teachers in their schools. The girls, who have seen incredible hardships in their young lives, had started to believe that school was just another hellish ordeal for them to survive. However, coming to VOICE Camp, the girls felt something very different – they felt safe. As girls learnt about their rights and the meaning of abuse, counsellors started getting reports from student after student.
The schoolgirls spoke of harsh punishments – verbally and physically abusive in nature – being doled out by some of their teachers. Caste-based-discrimination was also found to be rampant. Girls belonging to ‘lower’ castes were talked down to, and asked to keep distance from the others! “I want to study, but if this is the only way for me to achieve that, I would rather sit at home!”, one emotional camper told her Akka. Apart from these nightmarish issues at school, there were also confessions of trouble back at home. One 14-year-old spoke of mounting pressures from her parents to get married, a prospect that was worrying her to no end.
In training counselors to teach girls at camp, VOICE conducts a session on non-disclosure – it is not uncommon for girls to confide in their counselors about issues that they are facing. Counselors are trained on how to handle such issues. The key messages of the session are: empathizing with the student, listening without interrupting, not asking a student to repeat narrating a painful account, never accusing or blaming and most of all discretion. Counselors are instructed on channels by which they should report issues raised by their students, so that they may be addressed by the most suitable authority.
In this case, VOICE Counselors reported back to the staff with letters written by several students, filled with accounts of the trials they were facing. These girls had even signed the letters. Understanding the sensitivity of the issues, and wanting to protect children from more pointed attacks, their names were left out of formal complaints made to the government authorities by VOICE staff.
And then… change. Within weeks, students reported of corrective action taken to ensure that girls are not disciplined by any use of force; they seemed delighted to see how the staff started treating their girls with more respect. The government body even conducted an intervention for the 14-year-old, she is going to stay in school and marry only after she’s 18!
The girls were happy that something had changed; gladder still that their VOICEs had made this change possible. Wide-eyed wonder to see that wee-girls like them could stand up for their rights!