As I See It… An Experience with VOICE

“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?”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

A Whole Lot of Scottish Love!

It has been a very busy time at VOICE 4 Girls. These last two months have seen us conduct back-to-back camps in Uttar Pradesh and Telangana. In betwixt the chaos of ‘Camp season’, and at the start of Sakhi Peer Leadership Camp, conducted at Telangana Social Welfare Schools, we were lucky to have a visit from the good people at Scottish Love in Action at the Social Welfare Residential school, Kammadanam (one of three locations where this particular camp is being conducted)!

To give you a little background here, Scottish Love in Action or SLA, is a charity based Edinburgh, Scotland. The organization has been funding a home and school for over 500 destitute children in the East Godavari District, Andhra Pradesh. SLA raises funds to support the housing, clothing, education and health care of these children, a lot of who come from marginalized communities and tragic circumstances.

Now looking to expand their operations, SLA has taken a keen interest in backing the work being done by VOICE 4 Girls. Though they have visited VOICE before, this was their first time experiencing a VOICE camp firsthand. The team who visited India, consisting of Gillie Davidson (Founder and Chairperson); Colin McRae (Executive Director) and Vicki Watson (Fundraising and Communications Manager).

VOICE staff met the team at Kammadanam, just as the sun started to chase the light winter chill from the air. A meeting with the Principal, Mrs. Sahida, who is a champion of young girls’ education and empowerment was in order. She has been an ardent supporter of the VOICE Camps, this being the third successive camp after Parichay and Disha camps. “There is such a great change we see in girls after they go through VOICE Camps; they become more confident, more aware and want to achieve more!” she exclaimed. “The difference can even be seen in their academics. I think if you give them the confidence and help one facet of their personalities, the rest of it just follows,” said the educator.

After the brief chat, Gillie, Colin and Vicki proceeded towards different classrooms to observe and assimilate how VOICE Camps are delivered. The day’s lesson which involved an activity that required girls to go from group to group like ‘butterflies spreading pollen’ exchanging and accumulating ideas of what they would each like to improve in their own communities. The Campers didn’t fall short of amazing everyone with their ideas!

“I want to stop child marriage! Just recently a friend of mine got married. It disturbed me a great deal… she wanted something else for herself! She’s a young girl just like me!” said M Lavanya, a fiery camper of Class 9.

“I want to start a program in my community where young and old people can get better training in spoken English,” said A Manasa.

“I want to work towards getting women the same treatment as men do at the workplace. Women are treated and paid less than men. It’s not fair!” said A Maina with great feeling.

 

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The girls, all leaders in their own right, made ample clear their potential to change the world around them. Seasoned from two prior VOICE Camps, these girls are powerhouses of confidence, energy and determination! It is a great credit to the fantastic young counsellors, Samadrita Chakraborty, Nayana Raj, Priyanshi Bahadur, Ponnapalli Srilekha and the managerial guru, V Sai Shubhangi who as Field Coordinator managed the camp sp flawlessly! So much admiration for all these young girls and women!

Energised and enthused from the charged classroom, the SLA team also took the time to have a group discussion with select campers. Gillie, in her soothing and soft voice, had the campers rapt with attention as she told them that they each were unique and beautiful. You could see that each camper, sat straighter believing and assimilating her words.

To end their visit, Colin got everyone involved in an activity he called ‘the Human Firework‘!

What a day! We are so thankful to these wonderful people who are going to be campaigning for VOICE 4 Girls all the way back in Scotland to raise funds that will send hundreds of girls to VOICE Camps! We can’t wait to see them again!

 

Happy Children’s Day!

What is it about children? Sure, they are just bursting at the seams with cuteness–curls, dimpled hands, twinkly eyes, missing teeth and what have you! Then there’s the iridescent energy bubbling just under the surface (other times without the trouble of disguise so unbridled and tumultuous). And it IS true that children alone possess the means to produce happiness simply by virtue of presence… is it any wonder that homes light up with festive spirit and cheer when there’s a little munchkin running amok?

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But there is something more isn’t there? To be ‘like a child’ is distinctly appealing while I am yet to hear someone boasting of living ‘like an adult’ (adolescent aspiration of a fairy tale life of ‘freedom’, though laughable are notwithstanding).

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When I think about children or childhood, I think of magic! What do I mean by that? Let me explain…

A few days back, my colleague and I paid a visit to a minority welfare residential school, on the outskirts of Hyderabad. Since VOICE 4 Girls will be conducting camps for girls from minority welfare schools later this month, our partner organisation wanted us to take a few pictures with the girls at one of these schools. We were introduced to a class of girls studying in class seven, though in age and build, there was variety– girls’ ages ranging between 11 and 14, some clearly pre-teen and others emulating ‘lady-like’ qualities indicative of them making the physical transition into womanhood. Make no mistake, they were all children. As we explained to our rapt audience, that we would soon be conducting camps where they’s be learning exciting and interesting things about themselves and their bodies, their rights and their futures, there was pin drop silence. Half an hour and one energizer later, we struck gold! The lobby-turned-classroom echoed with the sound of laughter and excited voices clambering over each other to catch ‘Akka’s’ attention. Life is not a walk in the park for these girls; the only constant is strife and struggle. Yet, one silly song about a monkey and his monkey tricks had these children roaring with laughter and clapping with boundless joy! And oh! Their eyes! We could have powered a small town with the collective sparkle in those eyes! MAGIC!!!

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I think that’s what makes childhood so precious… Why it is so very crucial that the sparkle in those eyes be protected… So very promising to fuel their dreams—floating on little boats, but the largest amount of conviction billowing their sails.

Happy Children’s Day everyone… May we all learn to practice the brand of magic these children wield. Like Roald Dahl once said,

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”