That Elusive Freedom…

 

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“Hey, could I borrow some cash from you? I don’t want to stop at an ATM dressed like this!”

“Hey, text me once you get home. In fact, take your phone off silent and keep texting me till you get home. Let the driver know that you are talking to someone.”

Arre, I am waiting at the bus-stop. So much lewd staring! I should have just taken a rickshaw.”

“A couple of guys on a bike kept following my car. You know what I did? I parked at the next signal and right next to the police booth! That taught them a lesson!”

“I need to pick up some things from the store. Could you take me? I just don’t want to walk down. That last stretch of the road has no streetlights…”

“Why are you travelling alone to U.P. by train? It just isn’t safe!”

“Why don’t you ask for an earlier shift at work? It is just not safe coming home so late!”

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Any of these phrases sound familiar to you? They mark every landscape of a girl or woman’s life. We learn to anticipate danger; we turn our fear into a shield. Like the scouts and guides’ motto, we learn to ‘be prepared’.

How do we learn to fear the outdoors? Does it surface from an ocean of experience, or from conditioning – the framework within which a woman can exist ‘freely’?

I can’t remember when I learned to catalogue dark spaces; shield my chest as I walk down the streets, to dress ‘modestly’ when using the public transport, to summon up my city girl tricks for safe cab travel, to avoid basements of office parking spaces, to keep in constant touch with friends and family when I am travelling alone.

What I do remember is the first time someone groped me at a bus-stop – a quick squeeze before the faceless offender jumped on to the footboard of a bus. It took a few minutes for it to register… however, the emotional recoil was instant. That dirty feeling that no amount of soap could wash off, the helplessness-meeting-anger-rush that stung my eyes and nose. I was in school at the time. For days afterwards, I could recall the repulsive lingering pain left behind by those assaulting hands; I would physically shake my head to get rid of them. A few more years of lecherous men, catcalling, groping, flashers, masturbators, and stalkers later, a defence mechanism arose. We, women, learn these ways young; a sad rite of passage.

A few months back, my 8-year-old daughter came home from the park looking pale and quietly told me that two boys kept touching her ‘there’ – pointing to her chest. She was visibly shaken and distraught. And along with waves of pain I felt for her, there arose a sickening acknowledgement that for her it had just begun.

Is this the kind of world we want to live in? The kind where little girls are taught to build armour, learn to fend off predators, learn to shrink their presence to avoid and deter violence? Violence that will always be seen as a result of this girl not having been careful enough… Is a world where streets, transportation, bus-stops, stations, parks, basements, hours of the day or night, pockets of neighbourhoods/cities/countries are cordoned off, one that heralds freedom?

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Can we aspire for a world where safety from violence is not left to preventive measures? Segregated compartments, pepper sprays, CCTV cameras, curfews, well-lit spaces, SOS apps are all fine, but how long can the conversation revolve around protection of women rather than the creation of a gender-equitable world. I would like to believe that it is not impossible for a woman to step out without being seen as an object to desire and acquire; for women to be seen for what they are…human beings.

As I pondered the incident at the park, I thought of those two teenaged boys. Could they have known that they had caused such agony to another human being? I wonder if somewhere those boys’ parents spent sleepless nights wondering if their sons would further add to the already imbalanced gender equation; if they took care that their little boys did not turn oppressors; if they understood that infringing on another’s personal space couldn’t be written off as ‘boys being boys’.

If we need to move forward as a society, it is critical that each of us have the freedom to go about our daily activities without watching over our backs. More women in the workforce are good for the economy; inclusive spaces are good for everyone! How can we engage with all stakeholders in this society to edge our way towards a gender-equal world? How can we subvert the patriarchy and create an environment of respect, empathy, equality and humanity?

Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments! Let us take this conversation forward… Let us work towards creating a better future… For our girls and our boys…

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P.S….If you are in Hyderabad and support the need for creating safe spaces for women, you can join me and VOICE 4 Girls as we take the Freedom Walk, on August 15. Let us band together and raise our voices for freedom from this fear,

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Disclaimer: The author of this blog, Malini Gopalakrishnan is the Content and Communications Officer at VOICE 4 Girls. The thoughts, opinions, and ideas expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of VOICE.

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Her Voice Disha – Stepping Towards a Bright Future

“The great thing in the world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

Where do we find our sense of direction? Does it come from our immediate environments or through introspection?Most often it a combination of the two; VOICE’s philosophy fittingly emphasizes the need for the right information to reach marginalized adolescent girls so that they can map their futures to the best of their capacities and social realities.

 

As VOICE4Girls concludes its very last camp for the summer program of 2017, the atmosphere is jubilant – an emotion shared by every member of the extended VOICE family. About 261 students from 21 KGBV schools across Mahbubnagar district participated in the “Her Voice Disha Camp”, June-July 2017. 

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While Parichay camps introduced concepts focusing on self-awareness, safety, puberty, and rights, Disha’s curriculum builds on this foundation and explores themes around sexual health, growing up, planning, health, and nutrition.

The girls bring with them a very different energy and outlook to the Disha Camp, they are grounded, obviously having absorbed much of the information from the Parichay Camps, but certainly not missing any of the zeal and inspiration that is so true to their nature. Day 5 of the ten-day camp particularly pays attention to understanding mental health as a stand-alone concept but also an essential factor for overall physical health as well. So, assuring is the affirmation for the day, “I will love and look after myself” that promotes a positive self-image, taking care of self and nutrition.

Day 6 builds a momentum that is delightful to witness with the chapter “I am growing up”. Growing up as part of the adolescent process can be a very personal and critical juncture in one’s life, it is the time when one understands and questions identity? The idea of identity as homogeneously scripted and given to us is largely what we are conditioned to, but identities have many facets to them that can be comprehended to accommodate the many differences that makes up the human race. These many differences in identity take into account geography, culture, gender, body and experiences that are unique to an individual. Discussions around this is always a process of challenging the typecasts that society bestows upon us. Engaging with the girls at an age when identity formation can be moulded in the direction towards self-discovery and critical thinking is a responsibility, and one that is optimistically taken up by VOICE’s counsellors very seriously.

Sexual and reproductive health is still a very taboo topic, and providing young adolescent girls with this crucial information becomes necessary to address the sex ratio, infant mortality rates and maternal mortality rates of the country. These indicators are markers of social development for communities and the larger society, which Dr. B.R Ambedkar has justifiably put forth, I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”

The girls are enthused to share their everyday learnings not only with their counsellors who are conducting the classes, but also with their other classmates who attended the previous cycle of the camp. “The conversations and laughter and never ending”, shares a counsellor who facilitating the Disha Camp for the first time. Planning for the future involves providing the girls with necessary tools such as – understanding how to map out future educational opportunities, how to approach relationships that are healthy and productive for the self, and community and most importantly to take charge of a future that is self-made.

Embracing the changes that come with adolescence has never been an easy transition, and especially for girls from marginalized communities that lack the positive role models that can provide the much-needed direction, Voice4Girls shares this “DISHA” with them with open hearts and best wishes!

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Pavana V. P.

 

VOICE’s Reach – The Power of Voice

“I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” ―Malala Yousafzai

 

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What does it mean to have a voice? What power does it unfold for one when used to articulate oneself through a process of self-determination? These are very significant and important questions that are pondered over while attempting to understand the crux of Voice4Girls’s work. VOICE takes a clear stand on how they engage with marginalized adolescent girls from low-income communities which reflects in their mission statement.

“To enable marginalized adolescent girls in India to take charge of their futures by imparting critical knowledge, spoken English, and life skills through activity-based camps.”

It’s June 2017 and V4G is close to completing “Her Voice Parichay” camps for the summer across Telangana State. A total of 15 KGBV schools with a strength of 814 students participated in the Parichay camps, which is the first cycle of the three-pronged VOICE programs. 

It’s Day 6, and the atmosphere at the KGBV Regode and Tekmal schools are very much bustling with energy. This palpable excitement mingled with curiosity and confidence is shared by both counsellors and campers alike. Counsellors themselves are young undergraduate students or recent graduates who get trained on the Voice Model to impart the curriculum. One can see clearly that it is a reflective process for all involved. Just the previous day, campers participated in the “All about my Periods” session, which has had noticeable changes in the way they are now approaching camp sessions itself. These young voices are slightly louder and clearer, and some voices that are getting heard for the first time in the VOICE classroom. As for the counsellors, they cannot contain their delight that their students are opening up in class and that the teaching methodology is showing results.

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A hand-made poster drawing made by one of the campers is pasted on the doors of one of the classrooms, and in bold letters, a powerful caption reflects back at you, “I want to be free in my life”. At many times, during the course of the camp, many of the girls stop by at this poster and have conversations about being independent, of thinking for the self, and of understanding strength as an inherent quality. They have these conversations with each other at length and most definitely with their “Akkas”, as they fondly call their VOICE Classroom teachers.

Day 7 of the camp is noteworthy; the session talks about safety from violence. Violence is so normalized that some of us fail to recognize it as harmful and detrimental to our communities and societies. Discussing violence with young adolescent girls at these camps not only opens up for conversations but challenges the very mindsets that girls are conditioned into. That very evening, across the different camps in Medak district, when counsellors gather together for their preparation meetings to get ready for the next day of camps, many sit down with mixed feelings about the day. Much of what is reflected is done with such passion and zeal, that it does not go unrecognized that talking about violence structures, identifying it and facing it is not only a personal but a shared journey with stories that are often familiar yet different. Counsellors and campers alike have connected with the stories laid out in the activities in the counsellor and camper books, because the language seems to have struck a chord with all the individual and shared narratives. Understanding how to say “NO”, learning consent, understanding autonomy – are all new tools and resources that have been shared with them. Some quivering but mostly confident voices declare the affirmation for the day “I will be strong and keep my body safe”; with each repetition, it is bolder and louder.

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On Day 10 witnesses the culmination of Her Voice Parichay Camp. “Those who wish to sing, always find a song” – a Swedish proverb aptly sums up this journey filled with vigor and unfathomable energy. Because these young girls themselves are their own biggest resources and aware of their social realities, it is easy to equip them with the critical knowledge that prepares them for a better tomorrow, a world that they can make sense of on their own terms for the betterment of their families and communities. And what better way to end camp than performances put up by the girls themselves that attempt to sum up their experiences and learning through the course of the 10 days. With few parents present and school personnel, it’s a bittersweet farewell for the campers of Medhak district, June 2017.

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The author, Pavana V P, is the newest member of the VOICE Team; this is her chronicle of Her VOICE Parichay camp that she attended in June.