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.

Teen Depression – The Elephant In The Room

Today, April 7, is observed by the World Health Organization as World Health Day. This year, the theme for the day is — Depression. Just four days back, on April 3, Arjun Bharadwaj, a 23-year-old college student from Mumbai, jumped to his death from the 19th floor of a luxury hotel. His elaborately planned suicide, which he also live streamed on a social media platform, was said to be the last resort to end a struggle with depression and drugs.

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Depression affects people of all ages, from all walks of life, in all countries. It causes mental anguish and impacts on people’s ability to carry out even the simplest everyday tasks, with sometimes devastating consequences for relationships with family and friends and the ability to earn a living. At worst, depression can lead to suicide, now the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year olds.

According to the study, Suicide Mortality in India: a nationally representative survey, India has the highest number of deaths occurring from suicide, worldwide. The study also found that of these deaths, the largest percentage occur between the ages of 15 and 29 years. Mental health is an issue of grave concern today — but, how often do we talk about it?

A few months back, a VOICE Counsellor, *Jharna, made frantic calls to a staff member. She sounded distraught and said she did not want to live anymore. It has been a year since Jharna’s father passed away; she lives with her mother and brother now. She told the staff that she felt like she was all alone and that no one cared about her; she missed her father terribly; her accounts indicated neglect and possible abuse. She confessed to having taken several sleeping pills in an attempt to end her life. On contacting her mother, we were met with indifference and coldness. Within minutes of Jharna’s call, our staff sprung into action. Finding her address in her internship contract, we were able to find her in time and get her to a hospital where they flushed out the pills and kept her under observation. With the help of a partner organization, Jharna was counseled and relocated to a girls’ hostel where she is happy and safe.

VOICE Camps address mental health issues while talking to adolescent girls. We talk about the mind or brain as a part of the body that requires care and attention as much as any other part. We talk to girls about emotions; why we feel them; managing these emotions well; and about healthy and unhealthy behaviors. We talk to young girls about identifying symptoms of mental illness: extreme sadness, lack of motivation, extreme fear or anxiety; inability to carry out day to day tasks, a sudden change in behavior patterns, trying to hurt self or wanting to end life. We encourage girls to recognize these signs, not only in themselves but also in others. We help girls understand that there is no shame in talking about how we feel and that doing so is one of the ways we can manage emotions in a healthy manner.

At one of these sessions, we had a camper, *Sujana whose case was brought to our notice by her classmates. After the VOICE session, Sujana’s classmates approached the staff and reported that she was prone to having violent mood swings and that she would often cut herself. With the help of school and intervention from district level authorities, Sujana was referred to a therapist who was able to help her.

The problem today is this — mental health is taken for granted, far from being considered a critical aspect of health; the mind is not considered as subject to irregularities and illness. Teenagers and young adults especially feel an incredible amount of pressure that stems from pubertal changes, the pressure at school or to build a career, peer pressure, parental expectations, identity and sexuality-related issues, romantic relationships etc. It is but natural to feel overwhelmed by these pressures from time to time.

It is time to unbox mental health and depression; it is time to open up channels for people to discuss these issues and get professional help if required. Perhaps then, a young man standing at a window of a high-rise might not feel alone enough to jump out of a window, maybe he will be able to walk back into the rest of his life…

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*Names changed to protect identity