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In this Bihar village girls shine as activists

Oct 09, 2014

Manisha Bharati, a Class Eight student of Government Middle School in Bhalui village of Vaishali district in Bihar, has only recently discovered the joys of using soap and knows the merits of washing hands to maintain hygiene. She has been telling everyone in her neighbourhood about it with the result that soap sales have gone off the charts in the village. Her classmate, Nidhi Verma, has taken on the task of talking to young mothers about immunisation. Although they find it awkward when she confidently approaches them to make inquiries about their children’s vaccination schedule they listen to what she has to say on the importance of proper and timely immunisation. Then there is Preeti whose pet cause is sanitation. She wants to make sure that every home in the village has a toilet so that no woman is vulnerable to violence or ill health due to open defecation.

Village Girls

Despite living in a conservative social set up the girls of Bhalui village today are socially conscious, vocal and committed to making their homes and lives better. Who or what has triggered this amazing transformation? Inspiring young women to get actively involved in their community’s welfare is the feisty nine-year-old Meena, the animated character created by UNICEF. Though she has been around for over a decade, her influence and charm have not diminished. Through fun-filled stories and evocative messages on a variety of subjects, such as immunisation, nutrition, hygiene, girl’s education, child marriage and dowry, she continues to remain a much loved icon among rural girls across India.

From Odisha to Bihar, from Uttar Pradesh to Rajasthan, Meena has indeed spread the word on social change through her adventures, truly becoming the voice of the voiceless. In the Government Middle School in Bhalui, students, largely girls, listen keenly to the daily Meena radio broadcast, occasionally shouting out the answers to the questions she poses through the show. For over a year now, Manisha has not missed even a single broadcast of ‘Meena Ki Duniya’ (Meena’s World). “I have been listening to the programme regularly and have learnt so much from it. For instance, I have understood the importance of basic things like wearing slippers to the bathroom and washing our hands before every meal,” she shares.

In fact, it was the episode on hand washing that spurred her to demand that soap be provided in school. And not just in her school but the ripple effects of this message were felt in other schools in the district as well. Apart from understanding the need for maintaining better hygiene, there has been a noticeable improvement in the maintenance of toilets in schools where the Meena radio programme is aired.

Like Manisha, Nidhi, too, is a huge fan of Meena and takes all her teachings to heart. She recalls how mothers in their village were unaware about immunisation. “The women did not have much information on immunisation. ‘What’s the use?’ they would often ask. Others gave the excuse that they did not have any time to take their child to the health centre to get them the shots. But I talked to them at length and insisted that they vaccinate their children,” she narrates.

If Nidhi decided to spread the word on vaccination then Preeti, who is a student of Class Seven, picked up the issue of toilets to make a difference. She gathered a few girls and walked around Bhalui identifying homes that did not have any toilet facility. Once that census was done they went up to the family to engage in a discussion with them on why they needed to construct one.

“Like Nidhi, I too encountered tough resistance to the idea. Families told us that they have so many other problems, this is the least of them. Besides, they said, they could not spare the money. Then there were those who argued that they did not have the space,” she recalls.

However, the girls were not only determined but also unrelenting. They went from door-to-door, spending hours on end explaining to everyone how they could pick up a disease while defecating in the open. Moreover, it poses a real threat to the security of the women, they told the villagers. In due course, many families got the message although there are some who are still being pursued by the girls, who have made up their mind that they will not rest till their mission is fulfilled.

Interestingly, their campaign for change got support of the boys in their school, who have been influenced by Meena’s younger brother, Raju, who is her greatest ally. The team of boys and girls have formed a Meena Manch, which regularly stages street plays for spreading awareness on good practices and altering detrimental social practices, especially child marriage, in their community. Indeed, members of the Manch do not hesitate to take direct action when the need arises. Nidhi and her classmates recount how they landed up in the neighbouring village when they heard that an underage girl was being married off.

“The girl’s father was furious with us when we told him that he could not marry off his daughter as she was below 18 years of age. He argued, insisted that he would go ahead as he had managed to find a good groom for her,” Priti chips in, adding that he backed off only when they told him that they would call in the police as he could be arrested for marrying off his an underage girl.

Abha, the facilitator of the Meena project in Bhalui, says that she has seen a marked change in the girls ever since they started the radio sessions a year ago. Attendance in school has shot up as students are loathe to skip school because they do not want to miss any episode of Meena’s adventures.

According to Nipurnh Gupta, a UNICEF official in Bihar, who is associated with the programme, it has been proven beyond doubt that the Meena radio sessions have had an immense impact. Immunisation levels have risen in areas where Meena radio sessions are being held while the girls have become more empowered. “The girls are now teaching their mothers about washing vegetables, immunisation, girls’ education…” she adds.

The influence of Meena is all too visible. Manisha, Priti, Nidhi and others in their school are brimming with confidence. Motivated by Meena, they insist they will go in for higher studies and will not allow their parents to marry them off before they turn 18. “Simply put, it is illegal to get married before that so there is no way we will consent to it,” they all exclaim. More power to these girls!


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