Girls will be girls here

Jyoti Punwani | Updated on October 17, 2013

Cry liberty: Adolescent girls from Mumbai bastis march for gender equality. - WFS

Joy of painting at a Vacha women's resource centre set up by veteran feminist Sonal Shukla. - WFS


“Here comes tension/ girls’ tension/ Doing housework/ wanting to study… Come, do come/ Lose yourself in Vacha/ There goes tension/ Girls’ tension has gone.” — a translation of the Hindi poem ‘ Ladkiyon ki tension’ from the book Bole Kishori brought out by Vacha Trust.

Meeting girls from Mumbai’s slums whose lives have been touched by Vacha, the women’s resource centre started by veteran feminist Sonal Shukla and her team, it’s impossible not to come away smiling. No wonder, after 18 years of working among pre-teen and adolescent girls, Sonal feels exhausted but optimistic. “When you experience their raw passion to do the right thing, their great enthusiasm to learn new things, you cannot be pessimistic,” she says.

Beginning as a library in 1987, Vacha expanded in 1995 to work with girls studying in municipal schools. The Vacha office, housed in a municipal school, became for the girls a space to experience a freedom they could not at home, and to be themselves. And not only because their homes were often small, airless rooms located at the edge of a marsh or garbage dump. Nischint Hora, administrator at Vacha, remembers the excitement when they provided second-hand cycles for girls to ride in the school’s compound: “They felt they were flying!”

Vacha means “speech/ verbal expression/ articulation” in several languages. The organisation chose to work with girls in early adolescence because, according to chief coordinator Medhavini Namjoshi, at that age they are constantly told what not to do. “There has to be somebody telling them you can do so many things”, be it reading, writing, drawing, taking photographs or dancing. Linked to this was the objective of imparting to them a feeling of self-worth, that “being a girl is not depressing” unlike what they may be made to feel at home. Moreover, if they are empowered when young, they wouldn’t mutely accept injustice as grown-ups. The Vacha girls express their newfound sense of liberation through poetry and paintings.

Many of their poems, which they read out proudly in front of families and neighbours during Independence Day and Republic Day celebrations, not just refer to the discrimination they face at home and on the streets but also express a determination to fight back. This Independence Day, they walked through their bastis with placards decrying “eve-teasing”. They fearlessly declared their readiness to confront the “eve-teasers”.

This self-confidence is Vacha’s greatest achievement. Consider the environment these girls live in. Housework is a given for them, as is being treated as an inferior. In one family documented in Vacha’s book Experiencing Girlhood — Stories from Bastis in Mumbai, only the father and brother got to eat quality rice. In Bole Kishori, a girl asks: “Is Chyavanprash (ayurvedic tonic) only for boys?” Restrictions against going out of the house, or talking, laughing — and even relieving themselves — loudly are common. So Vacha decided to open centres in the slums the girls lived in, to provide them a space outside of the school or coaching class — the only two places they were permitted to go to. From the first centre that came up in 2005 at Baandh, near the fishing village of Khar-Danda, Vacha today has centres in 15 bastis, including three in rural Kalyan-Dombivli — home to migrant labour on the outskirts of Mumbai, and two in Valsad, Gujarat.

To persuade parents to allow their daughters to visit the centres, Vacha started by offering to teach ‘useful’ skills like English and computers. That, for the girls, became a gateway to a new world, one that allowed them to express themselves and understand the forces that controlled their lives.

When talking to these girls, what comes across is their joie de vivre, and the way they speak their mind. They resent not being allowed the privileges their brothers enjoy. Seema can come to the centre only because her disapproving brother is either out or asleep at that time. Ayesha recounts how her brother is made to wash dishes only as a punishment for being naughty. He often promises her Rs 5 for doing the chore for him, but even before she can agree her mother tells her to do it for the “poor boy”. Ramya counters this with a sarcastic question: “What is boys’ work then, to sleep?”

A group of Muslim girls groan at having to cover their heads. Some confess they do so only when they leave home; others find it easier to wear a scarf clasped under the chin, though they hate it during the summer; some have got so used to dupattas they now feel awkward without them. But given a choice, it’s obvious they would wear neither scarf nor dupatta, but live in jeans — “like boys do”.

The changes Vacha has wrought in them are not lost to their families. The girls laughingly recount how their mothers now complain that their voice can be heard across the street; and that they now refuse to remove their brothers’ dirty dishes. Perhaps the greatest change is in their attitude towards their ‘home’ in the village. They love the open spaces, but hate the attitudes. “Villages are full of grumpy old men,” says one Vacha girl. “Talk nicely to anyone there, and they promptly come up with a marriage proposal,” remarks another, whose elder sister is engaged to be married, leaving her worried about the proposals coming her way.

Will she have the courage to tell her parents that ‘If you marry me off before I’m 18, I’ll call the police’, as another of Vacha’s regulars did? Usually, when the girls reach Std VIII, which is often accompanied by the onset of menstruation, their families attempt to send them back to the ‘safety’ of villages, or at least withdraw them from Vacha. Those who’ve managed to stay on, says Medhavini, have completed schooling and, consequently, acquired a greater say at home, greater mobility and, in some cases, incredible leadership qualities.

Has there been any backlash against Vacha in the slums? Surprisingly, no. For, the girls’ newfound outspokenness has benefited the community too. Thanks to Vacha’s field trips, the girls aren’t afraid to complain to the municipal office about un-cleared garbage; to insist that ration shops stick to rules and maintain complaint-books; and to inform basti dwellers about the facilities available at the nearest public hospital. Twice a year, they bring out newsletters and distribute them in their bastis.

Incidentally, boys also come to the Vacha centres. “Boys are privileged, but also vulnerable and deprived,” observes Sonal. And their inclusion has been worthwhile: one ten-year-old prevented the marriage of his 15-year-old sister; another, after seeing a street play on eve-teasing, apologised in front of everyone: “I never realised that our teasing forced girls to take a long route home to avoid us.”

Working with the bal-kishoris, as Vacha calls its girls, is not its only project. It has also documented the lives of female freedom fighters, produced lively handbooks on health for girls, and albums of feminist garbas; it conducts gender sensitisation workshops for municipal school teachers.

Sonal Shukla is among the early pioneers of Mumbai’s feminist movement that grew out of the anger around the 1979 Mathura rape judgment. Like all feminists, she too wants to change the world. Vacha is doing that.

(Names of all girls have been changed to protect their identity.)

© Women’s Feature Service

Published on October 17, 2013

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