“The educated ones leave, the ones with the potential to right the wrongs. They leave the weak behind. The tyrants continue to reign because the weak cannot resist. Do you not see that it is a cycle? Who will break that cycle?”
Stepping inside the KGBV School*, I could instantly hear the chatter of dozens of voices of campers. I slowly made my way through the halls and tried to sneak into a class without disturbing the girls learning inside, clutching my Canon with sweaty hands. As I nudged the door open to a classroom named Malala Yousafzai, at least thirty pairs of eyes shot up in my direction, wide with curiosity. Not a moment later, the girls greeted me with a “Good Morning” in unison, loud and clear. I replied with a beaming smile and snuck around to the back of the class to take some photographs. The girls giggled timidly for a few seconds, then immediately got back to working on their group activity, focused on their task. They were in the middle of a lesson on how to solve conflicts and negotiate with their peers and family. They might not have realized it, but in that moment each one of those girls was finding her voice.
I found VOICE4Girls on a whim while searching for organizations in India that focused on educating the girl child. Many NGOs had a similar sort of outlook and approach towards their work in this particular sector, but the VOICE model was strikingly unique. Their focus is on a long-term impact to empower adolescent girls within marginalized communities in India. The reason I found VOICE4Girls compelling and effective as an organization is that they are teaching young girls how to think, not what to think.
In a nutshell, VOICE conducts 10-day activity-based camps for teenage girls in government schools and low-cost private schools throughout India, imparting a curriculum focused on critical knowledge about health, safety, and rights, with an added knowledge about spoken English. Many, if not all, of these girls find themselves unable to advocate for themselves or control their future decisions. VOICE gives them role models in the form of their counselors, who are college students trained to be their peers (speaking to them in the local language), as well as their teachers. The counselors take them through the Parichay curriculum in the summer, focusing on puberty, safety, fundamental rights, building confidence, solving conflicts, strengths and weaknesses, identifying and preventing abuse, and defining beauty. They then come back in the winter to take the same girls through the Disha curriculum, focusing on topics like continuing education, seeking careers, financial planning, sexual and reproductive health, and defining a hero.
During my time with VOICE, I’ve had the revelation that gender is an extremely difficult conversation to have; it encounters an immediate, inherent resistance. It demands the unlearning of information that is embedded into the mindsets of these girls and the individuals around them. VOICE campers have internalized ideas that stem from a rigidly patriarchal society – they feel inferior, exhibit low self-esteem, don’t imagine themselves as capable, beautiful, or strong, and often think that abuse, physically or emotionally, is acceptable and “normal”. The particular camp I went to in Mahabubnagar, Telangana, India was a KGBV school, consisting of a demographic of girls who are predominantly Muslim, and whose parents are farmers or low-wage workers. They come from poverty, strife, and a setting where they are never given the chance to focus on their own interests, desires, or futures. These VOICE camps give them a way to focus on themselves, giving them an alternative view to life that eliminates child marriage and encourages economic and social independence. The transformation that these girls go through in the matter of a few days is extraordinary. Through maintaining contact with these girls throughout the Parichay and Disha camps, counselors are able to further train them to become Sakhis, where the girls have a responsibility to go out and invoke change into their communities using their newfound knowledge and voice. At that point, they no longer need an external push to make a difference; they take every opportunity they can to help girls around them who haven’t had the same experience that VOICE gives. VOICE camps have reached out to over 31,000 girls in India so far, and rate of outreach for the organization is astonishing.
Through my internship with VOICE, I’ve written up case studies, created promotional videos and digital content through photography and design, assisted with communication, helped with the recruitment process for counselors, facilitated in creating curriculum and content, and met the most incredible, inspiring group of young women who embraced me for the days that I spent with them at camp. I’ve also been inspired by the VOICE team, whose passion towards this cause is unparalleled. They’re some of the few people out there who have committed to be a part of the solution; they are not desensitized to the injustice and inequality that women face on a daily basis. They’re battling the oldest system of oppression that exists, and they’re a part of the conversation.
You can be a part of the conversation too. Visit voice4girls.org for more.
* Kasturba Gandhi Baalika Vidyalaya (KGBV) is a scheme launched for setting up residential schools for girls belonging to the SC, ST, OBC and minority communities. This scheme is being implemented in across the state where the female rural literacy is below the national average and gender gap in literacy is above the national average. The scheme provides for a minimum reservation of 75% of the seats for girls belonging to SC, ST, OBC or minority communities and priority for the remaining 25%, to girls from families below poverty line.
-Anvita Devineni is currently an undergraduate student at Washington University in St. Louis majoring in PNP: Philosophy-Neuroscience Psychology with a minor in Global Health.