“Hello Akka, Hi Akka, ni peru eniti?” (Akka, what is your name?)
Enquired a multitude of voices, within minutes of my arriving at Her VOICE Disha camp, at Telangana Social Welfare School in Kammadanam. Having only recently moved to Hyderabad from Mumbai, I couldn’t understand then what these girls were asking me – little did I know then, that I would be tutored and coached by the most spirited young girls!
About six months back, I chanced on Voice 4 Girls’ handle on Twitter and found myself completely intrigued. So much so, I applied for a job, even though it meant moving to a different state! As luck would have it, a few months later, I found myself in a rural district of Telangana, for my first experience at VOICE camp!
The 10-day camp definitely changed my life and opened my eyes!
Kammadanam was one of 9 locations in Telangana where VOICE was conducting the Her VOICE Disha Camps. At ‘my’ location, 380 campers (students), 11 counsellors (trained college students) and a field coordinator have come together for one larger goal – to equip teenage girls for their future. I was all set to join the movement – to learn and share all that I could!
“I will be strong and make my future bright!” The voices, filled with enthusiasm and conviction, resound in every corridor of the school, perfectly synchronized and giving me goosebumps! After the affirmation (they have a new one for each day), girls are ready to start the day on a high note.
This is a government school, and girls here come from very underprivileged backgrounds. In addition to all the pressures these girls face, they lack basic knowledge about things like health, safety, and rights – putting them at risk of violence, discrimination, low literacy, early marriage, teen pregnancy etc.
Looking at their beaming faces and the hope in each of their eyes, I felt more driven than ever to do something for them.
Over the next 10 days, I came to understand the content that VOICE is delivering at these camps. The content of Disha focuses on subjects like – physical and mental health, the importance of education and careers, future and family planning, negotiation, and even gender diversity. I thought it would be extremely overwhelming for these girls to learn so much about such complex issues, some of which are even considered taboo. But the campers proved me absolutely wrong. They listened to their Akkas (counsellors) eagerly, especially since these sensitive topics are dealt with through activities fun-based games.
I think the most challenging day for the counsellors was Day 6. Campers explored more their identities and learning about various feelings that they might experience as they grow up – closeness, commitment, and attraction. Campers also explored aspects of gender identity and sexuality in this chapter.
Initially, I could sense some reluctance in the classroom, but soon, the counsellors were deftly fielding a barrage of questions. It was very tough to handle this intense curiosity, but at the end of that day, girls left with widened horizons. It was indeed an amazing session!
It had become a routine for me and kids to meet after their classes. Every day, they would ask me, “Thinnava” (Have you eaten?). From them I have learned so many Telugu words. A girl said to me, “I would always wonder, ‘Why do these girls cry on the last day of the camp?’ Now, I can relate to them.” That is what a VOICE camp does to you. The bond that I formed with these campers will be something I will cherish always. The faith, trust and love I received has determined me to work harder for them and their futures.
Before we knew it, it was the last day of the camp. The air around our campers was thick with excitement (girls were ready to put up a show on the last day) and tinged with the sadness of leaving their Akkas behind. The final performance beautifully showcased the amount of knowledge, confidence, and courage girls have gained in these 10 days. They were full of energy while performing their sets and each performance was spectacular!
As I set out to leave with the counsellors, girls surrounded us with their final goodbyes and long messages. Two girls came to me and gave me a card that was drawn and decorated so creatively. I was overwhelmed with love and affection. As I looked back, I knew that nothing would keep me away from these camps!
The author of this blog entry is Saleha Paatwala, who recently joined the VOICE team as Content and Communications Officer.