Emerging From Behind Closed Doors
By Alistair Gretarsson
CHANDRAPUR, India, 25 February 2011 – In the centre of the Indian sub-continent, in the eastern part of the state of Maharashtra, lies the district of Chandrapur. The people who live in the remote, rural areas here are tribal and are some of the state’s most socially excluded communities.
Traditionally, women here marry young and often give birth to children at an age when they are not physically or emotionally ready, at great danger to their own lives. But in some of these villages, things are changing.
Anusaya is 14-years-old and she lives in the small village of Antapur. She is extremely shy but she smiles easily. Today she is planning to go back to school. Until very recently though, Anusaya spent all her days at home, cooking and cleaning, or in the fields, picking cotton under the hot sun to contribute to her family’s meagre income.
By the time her parents began to plan for her marriage, Anusaya had already been out of school for two years.
Rukma is a soft-spoken, 24 year-old single mother. She is also a prerika, a volunteer facilitator at the local Deepshikha adolescent girls’ group. One day, when she found Anusaya crying at the back of the group, because she was afraid to marry, Rukma decided to speak with her parents.
They were reluctant. They had married young themselves, and they believed it was in the best interest of their child that she marry as soon as possible. It took many visits and a lot of persuasion, but in the end, Anusaya’s parents agreed to call off the marriage.
As a result of Rukma’s tireless efforts, fifteen adolescent girls have returned to school. These girls are now emerging from behind the closed doors of their homes to become active members of their community.
Traditionally, women here do not speak out in public, but Rukma believes that her girls should be able to talk to anyone, instead of shying away and hiding in their homes. She has conviction in her voice and determination in her eyes as she speaks of her girls.
“The girls ask me, ‘How will we ever get rid of our fears?’” says Rukma. “We are trying to give them the confidence and an education so that they can grow stronger. In the past, they didn’t even have the courage to leave the house.”
Deepshikha: lighting the lamp of empowerment
Every child’s right to free expression is a guiding principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and this includes adolescents. They are as deserving of care and protection as young children, and they are as worthy of consideration and participation as adults.
The Deepshikha programme works to bring education and empowerment to these adolescent girls and, in the long-term, to ensure increased participation in decision-making that affects them. Their increased levels of confidence and strengthened capabilities are challenging traditional discriminatory beliefs and practices towards women.
Deepshikha was launched by UNICEF in 2008 in partnership with the Government of Maharashtra and local NGOs.There are now more than 2,200 Deepshikha groups in four districts of the state, reaching more than 50,000 adolescent girls.
“You can make a difference, a big difference, by capitalising on the energies of young women,” says TejinderSandhu, Chief of Field Office for UNICEF Maharashtra. “Investing in an adolescent girl also means that you are investing not just in an individual, but you are investing in a whole family.”
Potential prerikas are identified by the local village committee and nominated for a two-part, 20-day training programme in which they learn about child rights, essential health issues, and issues of sex and gender. They also learn about issues related to growing up and the physical and mental changes encountered during adolescence, and trained in using games, plays, song and other tools to ensure experiential learning.
After the first 10-day training session, each prerika goes back to her village, identifies and maps all the adolescent girls and then invites them to form a Deepshikha group.
After completing 40 sessions with her group, the prerika goes for a second round of training, after which each Deepshikha group is encouraged to form a Self-Help Group (SHG). The SHG opens up a bank account, saving small amounts of money that build up, over time, into a fund that can be accessed by the group members to cover essential costs for education, healthcare or even for small business ventures.
Growing confidence, widening horizons
Reshma is a bright-eyed and confident seventeen year-old who talks excitedly about what has happened to her. A few years ago her parents decided that she would be better off learning a vocational skill than going to school, and Reshma agreed. She began learning how to sew clothes but soon realised that she wanted to do more. When the Deepshikha group started in her village, she decided she wanted to be a part of it.
“The first time I attended a Deepshikha session, my parents were confused and they told me I wasn’t allowed to go. But then, when I told them what I’d learned about how to improve our community, they agreed to let me go,” says Reshma. “Then I realised that I really wanted to study, and my self-confidence started to grow.”
Reshma’s father is now a supporter of Deepshikha and has seen a big difference in the girls in his village. “Look at the change in all these girls. They’re working so hard now and they have so much courage,” he says. “If she can now learn something, she can become someone.”