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Boys and girls unite for gender parity in Uttarkhand

Mar 30, 2017

Children across the Indian mountain state of Uttarakhand are changing their communities and transforming long-established mindsets.

Dehradun: In a unique initiative, boys and girls in the mountain state of Uttarkhand have joined forces to tackle a prickly issue – gender equality.  They are getting girls back into schools and boys are pitching in to assist at domestic chores to help their mothers and sisters.

Akash Tomar, 17, starts his day by making up his bed and tidying his room. He then helps his younger sister with the household chores like sweeping the floor and cutting vegetables in the kitchen. It’s a far cry from the earlier days when no sooner did he rise in the morning than he was off to play cricket with his friends. “If I don’t help around the house, a majority of the burden will fall on my sister and she won’t have time to attend school, ” he says practically.

In company with the other young boys and girls in his village, Dhood, situated about 50 km away from Dehradun,  Akash has secured the return  of several girls to school, after they were forced to drop out by their parents and helped in constructing a toilet in the local school. And this is just the beginning.

Children across the Indian mountain state of Uttarakhand are changing their communities, transforming long-established mindsets and shaking up the very nature of governance. Under the aegis of  Mountain Children’s Foundation(MCF), a Dehradun-based ngo, a network of some 15,000 young people working with organizations across 600 villages, are tapping the power of collective action to get teachers to attend school and parents to allow children, in particular girls, to study. The call for action hasn't stopped here. They have got toilets built in homes, dustbins installed for waste disposal while  age-old attitudes towards gender, nutrition and hygiene are changing across villages.

The MCF / CRY Child Participation campaign in 16 villages of Vikas Nagar block in Dehradun district has  completed its fifth year and children’s voices are now being heard and their opinions seriously  considered. “ Over the years, we have seen a gradual increase in the number of women taking interest and attending the children’s activities. But this year has been special as an increasing number of men as well as the elected members of the village have also been participating,” states Aditi Kaur, MCF President.

The children in the programme have shown how much they can do to improve their village and change people’s thinking and actions. They have surprised both themselves and their community by standing up for what they feel is right, and following through with it, she observes. “Of course, the facilitator still plays a very important role in supporting the children in planning and implementing their activities, but the children are truly leading the way,” she adds.

According to Akash, one of their biggest successes has been to prevent a child marriage – that of a young12-year-old girl in their village. “Anita’s father and elder brother felt tied down by caring for her and wanted to marry her off so they could work outside the village. In addition, the other children at school were teasing her about her coming marriage. When our bal sangathan (children’s forum) heard of her plight we spoke to her father telling him it was against the law to get her married at such a young age and that he could go to jail,” he recalls. “After much counseling, her father agreed to send her back to school and even bought her books and a uniform. The teachers have been made aware of her predicament and we check up on her if she misses even a day at school.”

According to Kaur, gender balance is a central tenant of the MCF’s work. During large workshops, participants are selected with a view to maintaining a 50-50 gender balance. “But during the village-level meetings of the bal sangathans, our team found that the girls were not able to attend the meetings as they had to do ‘work’ at home.”

In order to tackle this challenge, the bal sangathans were divided into two groups (girls and boys) and they listed the work they did. The girls’ list was long. Then the group discussed how the boys could help their sisters. They wrote down the ideas and suggestions of the children and follow- up meetings were held to see if and where changes had taken place.

The results were enlightening and positive. In Dhore Ki Dandi village, young  Ankit began helping his sister Anjali  in sweeping and mopping while another lad , Abhishek, assisted  his sister Abhiva in lighting the fire in the morning and tidying the house.

The bal sangathans in each of the 16 villages meet once a month to discuss child rights, child participation, nutrition, sanitation and, hygiene. With over 838 active members, the villages now have 258 new toilets and thousands of trees have been planted by the children, with many of the seedlings having been procured from local government channels. The boys and girls working side by side have fearlessly taken on thorny challenges like child marriages and gender and caste discrimination.

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