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Women in India coming out of the closet

Aug 18, 2009

Thousands of girls across Maharashtra in western India are escaping the oppression of their homes and gaining new confidence. They are attending meetings of the Adolescent Girls’ Group, which imparts professional training and equips them with basic knowledge about gender, health and nutrition.

A group of Muslim adolescent girls sit forlornly in L Ward, part of the sprawling Tunga village slum complex in the heart of Mumbai. They are between the ages of 15 and 20 and have ‘aspiration’ written large on their faces.

Each of them is keen to enter into a competitive work environment in order to earn their own livelihood. Unfortunately, their fathers and family elders have refused them permission because they fear negotiating marriage for an economically independent daughter may prove an impediment.

It was with the greatest difficulty therefore that the girls’ parents agreed to allow them to become members of an Adolescent Girls’ Group (AGG) project called Deepshikha.

The objective of the programme, a Barclays-Unicef initiative spearheaded by several NGOs across Maharashtra, including SPARSH, is to help empower out-of-school adolescent girls living in rural areas and in urban slums.

Adolescent girls remain one of the most vulnerable sections of society, being deprived of basic knowledge on gender, health, nutrition and financial skills.

The aim of the group is to train facilitators, or prerikas, who will pass these skills on to smaller sub-groups of 15 and 20-year-olds across the state.

Breaking the barriers

Shabana, who has given her 10th class examination, would like to continue her studies.

“But my father, a tailor by profession, worries incessantly about my well-being. He has indicated that he would not like me to study further,” she states matter-of-factly, although there’s no mistaking the hurt she feels at seeing her future close before her very eyes.

Ruksana undertook a six-month beauty course in a nearby parlour. But her father will not allow her to work as a professional since this would involve her coming into contact with all kinds of people. “He is not comfortable with that idea,” she says.

It’s the same story with 19-year-old Sayeeda who has just given her BA exam. If she gets through she will become the first graduate in her family.

“Ever since my father passed away, my elder brother, a daily labourer who loads goods onto trucks, has been in charge of the family. He would like me to get married, but does not have the requisite money for my dowry,” she explains.

These girls, like 70,000 others across Maharashtra, joined the AGG because they believed it would help them improve their communication skills. Also, that it would give them the opportunity to get out of the house for a few hours, on weekends.

They also hoped that the group would become a vehicle to helping them find part-time jobs.

“When my family heard that I was being given classes on menstruation, personal hygiene, HIV/AIDS and details about the legal age of marriage, etc., they began to get worried. They felt all this knowledge should be provided only after a girl has got married,” says Shabana.

Fortunately, her mother has not stopped her from going to the weekend meetings. Shabana believes her confidence levels and interpersonal skills have both improved since she became a member of the AGG.

Catalysts of change

Girls who are selected to be prerikas become powerful catalysts of change within their communities. Ruksana, a 15-year-old from Rajura block, Chandrapur district, Maharashtra, and the youngest of three sisters, started having serious health problems some years ago. An investigation into her medical history revealed that Ruksana’s mother had attempted to abort her several times during her pregnancy as she had not wanted another child.

Attending the life-skills programme helped provide new insight into the way she could handle situations; now that she has become a prerika, Ruksana talks about her story with other adolescents.

“I become emotional when I talk to them, but the fact that I can talk about it has proved a major step forward for me,” she says. Ruksana now goes around her block telling people that girl-children must be welcomed as much as boy-children.

Nearly 60% of Mumbai’s 18 million population lives in slums, all of which are part of the 24 wards that the city is sub-divided into. In the initial stage, the AGG project is looking at working in three wards and has opened 125 centres in each of them.

Dhanushree Agre, ward coordinator for R North Ward, explains: “It’s a voluntary programme. During our interactions, we persuade parents to delay marriage for girls below 18, and have already succeeded in stopping 10 marriages in the Chandrapur ward.”

“Since a large number of girls (belonging to the Hindu community) try and supplement their family income by working from their homes, many parents were initially reluctant to send their daughters for group meetings,” Agre adds.

Lack of space being a major problem in Mumbai, some of the centres are being run out of anganwadis. Ratnamala Bansod, who has been running an anganwadi centre in Tunga village for the last two years, says: “I am presently looking after 150 children. The AGG comes here in the evenings. Our village has a mixed population, with people from Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bihar. We also have a large Muslim population. More girls would join if they got something concrete out of the programme.”

Sharmila Malgundkar, coordinator of the AGG project, explains: “Girls, and often their families too, want financial compensation for attending these sittings. But this is not about providing a financial package; it is about teaching people to participate in community development and take charge of their lives. Helping girls receive additional job training is not at the core of this project.”

The project is also being piloted in two blocks per year in the three districts of Latur, Chandrapur and Nandurbar, in Maharashtra. “We believe it is helping young women break out of the vicious cycle of gender discrimination and also become vocal agents of change,” Malgundkar says.

Many married women too have joined the group. One woman, a mother of two children, said: “It was the first time that I stepped out of my home. It has helped give me a sense of confidence. It has also given me a sense of identity and, most important, it has helped break the ice with women from other communities who are my neighbours. I understand the need to live together in harmony.”

Source : Infochange
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