The Retreat Before GO-TIME!

Time does indeed have a way of soaring when you’re busy; it seems like yesterday that 2016 was drawing to a close and all of us were celebrating the success of VOICE’s winter camps.

Already, the warming weather heralds the fast approaching summer – the whiteboards here at VOICE all announce the run-up to summer camps. Over 12,000 girl campers to be reached over the months of April, May and June alone! Before we know it, camp fever will be upon us… what better time to head off someplace serene, quaint and away from all the hubbub and clatter to reflect upon what has been done and what lies ahead.

With this idea, the team put their heads and purses together – VOICE 4 Girls headed to Coorg for a three-day retreat, where nestled in the lap of the bountiful Western Ghats, the team led by Executive Director, Anusha Bharadwaj, discussed and planned for the year ahead; shared thoughts and ideas; converged and became one … one team; one vision; one unit! Of course, there was plenty of fun and relaxation too… tourist destinations, great food and of course, a surplus of photo-ops!

A few of these memories, we would like to share with you. Check them out!

(Psssstttt… VOICE 4 Girls is still looking for female college students to teach our wonderful adolescent girls at camp. To know more or apply to the 10-day paid internship program, visit our Facebook page!)

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Silent, No More…

We are frequently asked by those who are new to VOICE’s work about the kind of change that we see and hope to see in the girls we reach out to through camps. I think every member of our family has been quick to come up with examples and instances – we tell them how confident our girls become, how they start talking to their families about the importance of staying in school, or about the dangers of early marriage and pregnancies, we talk about the numerous instances where girls stood up for their fundamental rights, reported wrongs, we speak of change. Some of this change takes years to be seen for what it is – nothing short of a miracle; while other forms of change transpire overnight.

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Such an incident came to light at VOICE Camps that were conducted across certain government schools in Telangana. Girls who attended the camp, approached their counsellors and appealed to them about repeated instances of physical abuse and caste-discrimination that they had had to face at the hands of teachers in their schools. The girls, who have seen incredible hardships in their young lives, had started to believe that school was just another hellish ordeal for them to survive. However, coming to VOICE Camp, the girls felt something very different – they felt safe. As girls learnt about their rights  and the meaning of abuse, counsellors started getting reports from student after student.

The schoolgirls spoke of harsh punishments – verbally and physically abusive in nature – being doled out by some of their teachers. Caste-based-discrimination was also found to be rampant. Girls belonging to ‘lower’ castes were talked down to, and asked to keep distance from the others! “I want to study, but if this is the only way for me to achieve that, I would rather sit at home!”, one emotional camper told her Akka.  Apart from these nightmarish issues at school, there were also confessions of trouble back at home. One 14-year-old spoke of mounting pressures from her parents to get married, a prospect that was worrying her to no end.

In training counselors to teach girls at camp, VOICE conducts a session on non-disclosure – it is not uncommon for girls to confide in their counselors about issues that they are facing.  Counselors are trained on how to handle such issues. The key messages of the session are: empathizing with the student, listening without interrupting, not asking a student to repeat narrating a painful account, never accusing or blaming and most of all discretion. Counselors are instructed on channels by which they should report issues raised by their students, so that they may be addressed by the most suitable authority.

In this case, VOICE Counselors reported back to the staff with letters written by several students, filled with accounts of the trials they were facing. These girls had even signed the letters. Understanding the sensitivity of the issues, and wanting to protect children from more pointed attacks, their names were left out of formal complaints made to the government authorities by VOICE staff.

And then… change. Within weeks, students reported of corrective action taken to ensure that girls are not disciplined by any use of force; they seemed delighted to see how the staff started treating their girls with more respect. The government body even conducted an intervention for the 14-year-old, she is going to stay in school and marry only after she’s 18!

The girls were happy that something had changed; gladder still that their VOICEs had made this change possible. Wide-eyed wonder to see that wee-girls like them could stand up for their rights!

 

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.