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Kamla Bhasin was a towering presence in the field of gender justice, gender equality and the fight against patriarchy - not just in India but in South Asia and beyond. An iconic trainer, communicator, writer and much more besides, she was always in high demand. At MVF, we were therefore delighted when she agreed to deliver a training programme for all field and office staff from 1-3 November 2018.

The staff at the receiving end of the training by Kamla were not novices. Indeed, they are all committed activists and field mobilisers who have worked long years on changing social norms on child labour and education. Extending this work to the fight for gender justice and universal education for adolescent girls raised a fresh set of challenges for staff who had to actively internalize a new set of norms themselves before they could set out to work on changing mind sets in the community.

Many of the staff were dedicated trainers themselves and all of them had been exposed to several rounds of training over the years on a variety of issues, including gender. Some of them might even have been sceptical about the need for yet another gender training, particularly as in their own perception they were already incorporating gender concerns in their work. However, Kamla’s training programme turned out to be a resounding success – far exceeding all our expectations - and she promised to return for a review meeting, but this was not to happen. The Covid pandemic derailed all plans at first, and then came the shocking news of Kamla’s death on 25 September 2021.

The consensus among staff at MVF was that Kamla’s orientation and training had made a dramatic, deep, and personal impact on them. It had left them uncomfortable and questioning themselves and many of them said that they had been forced to introspect on their own practices as never before. They insisted that they needed time to digest, internalize and act on the work that they had done with Kamla before she could be invited back. But one thing was clear, they were all energized as never before to fight against patriarchy and in favor of gender equality. And they resolved to practice gender equality in their own families and share the changes they had made with Kamla the next time they met.

At one level, Kamla’s pedagogy was simple. It was dialogic, with equal participation from everyone and involving each person to introspect and respond to questions. A range of issues were discussed, such as their views and personal experiences of daily practices; the division of labour within a family; could the differences in male and female capacities be defined as biological; were women inherently weak. Gradually, the participants were led to a transparent understanding of the social constructs of gender inequality and the politics of patriarchy. The starting point was for the male staff to interrogate their own roles in their respective families and the space they gave to the women to exercise agency. They began to grasp how patriarchy is pervasive, it is about power relations, and expresses itself in every nook and cranny of their professional work but also their personal lives. And it went beyond them, affecting institutional frameworks, laws and policies, and mobility, freedom and justice for women. While patriarchal norms exist in all classes, regions and cultures they get further compounded for the poor, marginalized, lower caste, Dalit and Adivasi women who have to combat multiple layers of inequality. MVF staff – male and female - began to recognize that gender inequality was a deeply political and contentious issue that had to be combatted alongside all other issues of inequality. It was invisible and a social norm in favor of gender equality had to be arrived at in their work with greater emphasis, starting with their own professional and personal practices. They had to first become the change they wanted to bring about in the community.

The training sessions took the participants on a journey through serious and hard-hitting issues, but Kamla interspersed these with sloganeering and songs to lighten the mood as well as to create an atmosphere of solidarity. Every session ended with the participants feeling that they had written the script themselves. They began to internalize that men and women had to work together to bring about transformation.

We asked staff to reflect on the ways in which they had been impacted by the training and the changes they had made in response. The following extracts reveal the equally powerful, though contrasting impact, that the exposure to Kamla had for the male and female staff. The men had to confront and challenge themselves; the women gained voice and empowerment to make changes in their personal domains. Their words speak for themselves.

Reflections from male staff

Venkatesh: “Little did I understand that it [gender] was my issue as well.”

“Even before we had the training program conducted by Kamala Bhasin we had some knowledge and awareness about gender discrimination. At that time, I was under the impression that work on gender issues was confined to mobilizing and empowering women. It was the same as working with men. Little did I understand that it was my issue as well. After the training I changed my mind set. I realized that I had to change my practices at home. Earlier, I never consulted my wife on any decisions, but I see that she can do anything. I now share everything with her. We discuss our children’s education. I would often get angry if there was a delay in the preparation of food. Now I share in all household chores - cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, tidying the house, cutting vegetables and I control my behaviour. In meetings, at work and in lectures I can recognize the gender biases participants have and can critique them for their biases. Indeed, I have become conscious of my own daily practices and have do's and don’ts which I try to follow diligently.”

VV Rao: “I realized the need for a gender perspective which includes not only girls but boys and girls.”

“We always talked about gender discrimination, but the training has made an impact on my home and also at work. I realized the need for a gender perspective which includes not only girls but boys and girls, and the need for ‘equality and respect for women’ in all spaces. I have two sons and I discuss the issue of gender equality with them as well. I know that I have to train them even more.”

Vijay Kumar: “Kamla ma’am gave us clarity on gender issues and our roles and responsibilities at the workplace and in the family.”

“Kamla ma’am gave us clarity on gender issues and our roles and responsibilities at the workplace and in the family to get rid of gender biases. I realized how I would give preference to boys, and this has changed. I would manage all the money matters and not include my wife in these decisions. This too has changed.

While at work, I would engage with the husbands of female sarpanches, speak to them and carry them along in the program. I now know how this was wrong. Since I have begun talking to the women sarpanches, I am able to go deeper into women’s health issues. Earlier I was not confident about talking about health issues with women and girls but not now. I have also become more open with Mahila groups and am able to discuss many new issues which I never did before.”

Bhaskar: “I am now half woman.”

‘The training program has given me a perspective to examine and question what is happening to ourselves, in our homes and our personal lives. I have become aware of my own masculinity and the link between masculinity and gender discrimination. I now share and support my wife in cooking, washing utensils and all household work. I am now half woman.

The training gave us tools to critique our practices and also those of other NGOs and government policies. I am now aware of the jargon of gender discourse and feel that I have gained some authority on the subject of gender equality.”

Prakash: “…her training was like a litmus test - it gave us checkpoints, a clear list of do’s and don’ts, showed us where we were slipping.”

“We have received training in MVF on child labour, social mobilization, exploitation, gender etc. but her training was like a litmus test - it gave us checkpoints, a clear list of do’s and don’ts, showed us where we were slipping. It gave us clarity about the exploitation of women at all levels. My language and thought processes have changed as a result. On the home front I was compelled to change my behaviour. For example, I had to change the language I used at home while talking to my wife and to share household responsibilities equally with my her. I have two daughters and my younger daughter is constantly questioning me on my gender biases. I have learnt to appreciate and accept what she says.

In meetings as well as in consultations with the community I make sure I give equal participation to women. I have learnt not to underestimate women and I can assess when other men are being discriminatory. Kamalji gave us the tools to measure practices of discrimination in our work and in the positions others take.”

Srinivas: “I realized that I was talking about gender equality like a male.”

“We had trainings earlier as well and were told that women have to be empowered for building a movement. But this training was different. The training itself became a challenge. On the first day I was wondering if I could accept what she said. I felt under pressure. I was not sure I could implement the training in action. But then I realized that if I have to continue working on girls’ issues, I have to change from within myself. I had to accept that there was gender bias in everything we think and do. I asked myself that if I did not practice gender equality in my daily life how would I be able to influence the public to act in support of gender equality.

I thought that I had to begin at home. For a start, the language I used in my family had to change. I had to be different from what society expected of me as a male. I told my wife that I would start fetching water from the bore well. This only resulted in huge quarrels between my mother and my wife, but I continued. My mother started using abusive language towards my wife and it created havoc in the family. I tried to correct my mother, but she would not listen. She said what would others, especially men, think of you, that you are under the influence of your wife. I couldn’t take this tension any longer and so separated from the joint family. We have separate kitchens now. I share all the work with my wife. I wash and dry my wife’s clothes despite my mother’s continuous resistance and remarks from my male friends. They blame me for starting a trend that they too will have to follow.

Earlier I was bossing over my female colleagues. I now realize where this exercise of power was coming from. Gender equality was merely tokenism. I realized that I was talking about gender equality like a male. I am now consciously trying to rectify my attitude and behaviour. I see that gender is a social construct and we can change it. My mother has stopped fighting and people have stopped complaining. We learnt from Kamla Bhasin that since we created this inequality in thought and action it is possible to demolish it and create a new culture of equality. We can show that this is possible. I continue to read Kamla Bhasin’s books. Some concepts are difficult, but I persist.”

Saidulu: “Had I known all this earlier I would have been a much better person.”

“After attending Kamala Bhasin’s programme I realized how inadequate our earlier gender training programmes were. There was something missing in them. I have made an effort to change the relationship with my wife and children. My wife would ask my permission for everything. She now goes ahead and does what she wants after I insisted that she should not take my permission. My children choose what they want to wear, and I don’t go shopping with them. In my work too, during meetings and trainings, women ate separately during lunch time. I now insist on all of us eat together. I feel bad that I lost so much time. Had I known all this earlier I would have been a much better person. A huge loss.”

Hanmi Reddy: I [have] started to discuss gender equality in all forums with confidence and credibility.”

“During the training I felt tense. I was convinced about Kamal ji but wondered if I could carry forward her messages and convert them into practice at home and in work. As we concluded the training, I gained confidence and said to myself ‘let me try’. I declared to my wife that she should take part in making all purchases and in deciding how we spend our money. I even asked her not to wait for me and have her lunch and dinner at the right time. I also began to fetch water. All this and more has now become a habit.

Due to this change in my lifestyle I started to discuss gender equality at all forums - the KBS, gender committees, CRPF with confidence and credibility.”

Narasimha: “I am now able to influence [people] to change their attitudes towards women and girls.

“My son in law sees me sharing all the work with my wife and so he has changed too in how he treats his wife. In fact, I am now able to influence members of the Child Rights Protection Forum (CRPF), School Management Committee and Gram Panchayats to change their attitudes towards women and girls. But change in the community is very slow.”

Ravi: “The training made me question whether we were correct about our attitudes on gender.”

“The training made me question whether we were correct about our attitudes on gender. I felt we have to unlearn a lot and put into practice the essence of gender equality in all that we do. For example, at home I was given preference and served rice and curry whilst my wife had only the leftovers. Now, I share all the work with my wife, and we eat together. I convinced my wife that this is not wrong. I take all decisions along with her. We are equal partners. At work, I find how patriarchy is so deeply entrenched. I sensitize members of CRPF, SMC on this.”

Raju: “It is a power struggle in which both men and women have to participate.”

“The training of Kamala Bhasin gave me clarity. I could see that gender discrimination is one of the many forms of discrimination. It is universal, cutting across societies, cultures, and regions. It exists everywhere. We understood where the sites of gender discrimination are. I learnt that to build a gender equal society change has to happen in all spaces, practices, and institutions. It is a power struggle in which both men and women have to participate.

I reflect on the practice of gender equality/discrimination in MVF. I am conscious of the difficulty to maintain gender equality while upgrading female staff with new roles and responsibilities, especially when there is a problem with their mobility. My language too has changed while talking to female colleagues, in forums and in meetings.

I have made several changes at home. It is now my job to clean utensils even when I am late from work, except when I am traveling. At times when I have guests or relatives, I regret that I am not allowed to share household work. I have two sons and have sensitized them on gender equality.

I have become more conscious about the pressures and challenges women face. In Bihar we are trying to focus on single women, giving them respect and making them visible.”

Swamy: “I learnt how gender discrimination, masculinity, patriarchy … apply to our own behaviour as well.”

“In MVF we have been discussing aspects of gender discrimination for a long time, but Kamla Bhasin’s training gave us the tools to understand and critique the discourse on gender inequality. I learnt how gender discrimination, masculinity, patriarchy are concrete practices of daily lives, everything we do, and not abstractions. They apply to our own behaviour as well. Her emphasis on shared responsibility made an impact on me. I always shared responsibility with my wife, but I do it more intensively now. What I like best is that her approach is inclusive where all have to participate and be won over and are not in opposition in making a gender sensitive society. This impressed me a lot.”

Seva Nayak: “I realized that in the training itself she was breaking hierarchy.”

“Kamala Bhasin started by insisting that she should not be addressed as ‘Madam’. Whenever anyone would call her’ Madam’ she quickly pointed out that it was wrong because it went contrary to the principle of equality. She asked us to call her ‘Akka’ (meaning sister). From this I got to know how our language too had to change if we are to practice gender equality. I realized that in the training itself she was breaking hierarchy.

In my neighborhood men would play cards, they were alcoholics and the women and their families suffered a lot. I began practicing gender equality at home, sharing everything with my wife. This gave me strength to talk to my neighbors and even to my father not to be disrespectful towards women, to be more responsible. I am happy to share that they have all changed.

I was having a difficult time in one village – not just with gender but also caste discrimination. I learnt from her that gender equality is part of the struggle for all forms of equality. Caste discrimination too has to be addressed and corrected. I used her training materials in my work and found that I could change attitudes.”

Dhananjay: “She presented the frame in a political way – it resonated completely with my own thoughts and practices. It was love at first sight.”

“I am very sad about her demise. We were ready for her review and were expecting to see her again. She was very passionate and candid in the way she explained gender issues and she made the political aspects of women’s issues very clear. She touched the person. She gave us a broad frame of reference for understanding gender bias and the multiple determinants – caste, family etc. – that are the drivers of this bias. She presented the frame in a political way – it resonated completely with my own thoughts and practices. It was love at first sight. We learnt so much and we really miss her. She is a writer as well and prior to meeting her we had all downloaded her books and read them.”

Venkat Reddy: “Even in women’s groups I now become the feminist.”

“I learnt the politics of patriarchy from Kamla Bhasin. I deal with a lot of NGOs of all hues, and she gave me the confidence to make a dent in their ideas. Even in women’s groups I now become the feminist. I can enter into a debate with them as I was trained to ask the right questions, without fear. Indeed, she gave us the tools and a litmus test to interrogate gender biases when anyone speaks. There is a lot of gender training about these days, but the training is apolitical. We can see that clearly now because of Kamla’s training. Her methodology was very powerful. She took us from 0 – 10 without threatening us. It was also very participatory. We were discussing, participating, sharing. Her training has made a huge impact on me, especially in my public life.”

Venkat Swamy: “she was so strong and convincing in what she said I thought it must be possible.”

“In the beginning I thought if I do all the things she says I’ll get beaten up. The argument she was building on gender equality would definitely lead to tensions in my house and in all my activities on child rights. I was not sure if I should even attend the training and thought of running away. But she was so strong and convincing in what she said I thought it must be possible. She gave me hope! I recalled that there was resistance even when we started our work on child labour. We faced many risks. But have we not changed mindsets?

I felt that I had to begin with my family and started to share in all the work. I was ridiculed by friends that I was ‘henpecked’ and that my wife was controlling me. I knew that this was their masculinity speaking and that I must not give up. I needed to be patient as this is a value system we have been handed down for generations. I am happy to say that gradually my wife has begun to understand me, and my friends too are beginning to shed their arrogance. I explain to them that even men pay a price for patriarchy. For example, if they share financial decisions with their wife it will lessen tension and there will be an equal sharing of responsibility.”

Satyam: “I have become a role model and have influenced my friends and relatives to practice gender equality at home.”

“After the training I share household responsibilities equally with my family. I know how to cook and how to do other household work, but I do it more consciously now. I cook dinner after I get home from work. I have become a role model and have influenced my friends and relatives to practice gender equality at home.”

Venkataiah: “After the training I was inspired to correct my own practices of discrimination in the family.”

“I thought I was good at practicing gender equality, but I now realize that it is a challenge. After the training I was inspired, and I felt I must take responsibility to correct my own practices of discrimination in the family. I was overwhelmed by the task ahead and knew it was not going to be easy. I told myself that I had to be clear and determined.

Now I share all the washing of utensils, wash and dry clothes (even my wife’s), fetch water, sweep my front yard and back yard. Men started to jeer at me in the beginning. Women started to pressure their husbands to emulate me and participate in household work. I would say that 50% of the men on my street have changed. Actually, even the upper caste men are now feeling the pressure. I feel so good about this change in division of labour.

There are changes in the gram panchayats too. After discussions on gender equality women have begun to participate actively in the gram panchayat meetings. Both men and women sit together while having lunch after the meeting.”

Reflections from Female Staff

Asha: “Now when I attend the gram panchayat meetings I insist that the women speak up first and participate actively, otherwise men would never give them a chance!.”

“My husband is a Reporter for the Namaste Telangana newspaper. He did not like me to work or move around in other villages. My colleague Venkataiah (see above) would meet my husband to convince him to let me travel, even at night, because that was the nature of my job. I work for Childline 1098 and I can never say when I will have to be on the move. Gradually I started sharing what I was doing with my husband, and he started dropping me to work.

One day, I told him I would be away for 3 days to attend Kamla Bhasin’s training program on gender and equality. He let me go and did all the household work. When I returned, I was waiting to share the discussion we had with him. I said to him, I am working and you are also working. But I spend so much time in preparing children for school, cooking and cleaning before I go to work. He was convinced about my arguments but did not help much. After some days when I fell ill, he took over the entire responsibility of fetching water, sweeping, cooking etc. I saw a change in him and wondered if my neighbours would say that I was dominating him but he said ‘don’t worry, they may also change’. Now when I attend the gram panchayat meetings I insist that the women speak up first and participate actively, otherwise men would never give them a chance!”

Nagamani: “I showed [my son] Kamla Bhasin’s YouTube programmes. He watched all her interviews and is completely influenced by her.”

“I have one son, who is unmarried, 27 years old . He works from home for a software company. He likes helping me and doing all the household work while I go out for my work. He also likes cooking, especially on festival days. He was not like this until he was in high school. He never cooperated. I showed him Kamla Bhasin’s YouTube programs. He watched all her interviews and is completely influenced by her.”

Manga: “My husband began to realise that he too must take part in the family. Only then could we call ourselves a family.”

“My husband works in a factory and I have two sons studying in class 10 and class 6. None of them help me at home. After returning from Kamla Bhasin’s training I was restless. I wanted my boys and husband to become more sensitive. I spoke to them about gender discrimination and gender stereotypes in our house almost every day. I even showed them Kamla Bhasin’ s interviews on YouTube. They watched them several times. My husband began to realise that he too must take part in the family. Only then could we call ourselves a family. He started with getting children ready for school in the morning, dried clothes while I washed them and cut vegetables. Interestingly, his snubbing, scolding and being sarcastic with me also came down.

When my sister had an operation and fell ill my husband and I spoke to my brother-in-law that he should run the house. Why must you get food from outside?, we said. He began to cook for the family, pack food for the hospital and did all the domestic work. His 3 sons changed too looking at my sons. But his mother is still unhappy and curses her daughter-in-law for getting her son to sweep the floor, wash clothes and bring shame upon the family.”

Uma: “After I shared my training programme with Kamla Bhasin with [my husband], he has realised that I need some rest at home.”

“My husband is a Reporter and I have two daughters. I had a very protected childhood, no exposure to the outside world. I never had any conversation with a male outside my family during school as I didn’t go to a co-ed school. I got married and lived with my husband’s joint family. I had no say in anything. I worked a lot without rest and had no one to talk to. I had to take care of his sister’s children as she passed away. I was so depressed and felt so useless.

We shifted with my daughters to Vikarabad when my husband got his new job there. I was still lonely but at least relieved of the joint family. We both quarrelled a lot. Venkataiah (see above) found out that I had completed school education through some neighbours and asked me if I would join MVF as a mobiliser. I said yes, almost unthinkingly. I had no idea what I was getting into. I did not even consult my husband when I said yes. I was determined to get out of the house even if my husband objected. I argued and fought with him and joined MVF in 2018.

For the first time in my life I faced a group of men and boys in a Child Rights Protection Forum meeting of MVF. I was so afraid and self-conscious that not a word came out of my mouth. I saw other women participate in the meeting but I kept telling myself that I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t work with men and boys. But Venkataiah did not give up on me. He mentored me with patience, took me on field visits and taught me the work of an MVF mobiliser. Each day I learnt something, I could relate to issues faced by girls and began to converse and even take forward the program. My husband trusted Venkataiah and also saw that I was changing into a different and confident person. He did not mind my late night visits and even takes me on his scooter, encourages me and feels proud about my work and talks about the work I do with the MDO (Mandal Development Officer), the MEO (Mandal Education Officer) and local leaders. After I shared my training programme with Kamla Bhasin with him, he has realised that I need some rest at home. He lets me have some leisure time at home.”

Deva Kumari: “I feel so satisfied that I could change these boys, empowered by Kamla Bhasin’s motivation.”

“I work in Childline Vikarabad. When MVF recruited me my brother-in-law and his wife opposed it vehemently. They fought a lot and were even violent. My husband did not oppose it. He slowly began to understand my work, tolerated my pillion rides with male colleagues and the long phone calls at unearthly hours, late in the night. His friends always commented that I was enjoying my freedom but he never cared for their jibes. He trusted me, took me to the meetings sometimes 10 km away, joined me at the railway station to rescue children, encouraged me and said ‘you do your duty. It is noble work for children’.

I have two daughters and one son. My son does nothing at home. He bosses over his sisters and doesn’t listen to me. After Kamla Bhasin’s training, I thought I should fix him. I gave him a big lecture about his attitude, and asked him why his sisters had to make his bed, fold his bed sheets, and wash his clothes. I told him to take notice of the work I did day and night. I also brough up the issue of boys stalking girls and harassment of girls. I told him off if he did not act responsibly, respect his sisters or take responsibility for tasks at home. He shared the confrontation we had with his cousin who was studying for his graduation and both of them came to debate with me on gender issues. I talked to them about POCSO, sexual harassment, masculinity and gender violence. I could see that they were slowly internalising what I was telling them. Gradually they included 10 other youth in the debate with me. They confessed about their stalking of girls, how they took photos and threatened them, and their general misbehaviour. I feel so satisfied that I could change these boys, empowered by Kamla Bhasin’s motivation.

There is a change in MVF staff as well. I sometimes felt that they would not take my work seriously and would listen to me in a tokenistic manner. Their attitude is now changed.. "

Sanjamma: “After Kamla Bhasin’s training I got courage.”

“I lost my husband 7 years ago and live with my mother. I have no problems at home. MVF staff gives me full support. After Kamla Bhasin’s training I got courage. I do as much work as my male counterparts and they accept me as an equal.”

Aliveu: “I was so impressed with Kamla Bhasin…She made me feel that nothing is impossible for a woman.”

“I was so impressed with Kamla Bhasin - she was so energetic and active, she gave me courage. She made me feel that nothing is impossible for a woman. After the training I thought I should do something to be independent. I decided to learn to drive a two wheeler and not depend on anyone for going from one village to another. I have now begun to give lifts to others. I proved to my male colleagues that I can do as much physical work as they do, carry and shift heavy loads along with them. My mother passed way and I did all the rites and demonstrated to the village that a woman is no less.

More importantly, I began to help my sister whose husband was an alcoholic, violent and was ill-treating his wife and two daughters. I said to myself, I have been combatting gender violence everywhere but not in my own family. I must do something about this. You wouldn’t believe that over one year’s time the family has changed. My brother in law has begun to work, goes to the bazaar to buy things for home, he cooks, makes special curries and does not drink much.”

Lalita: “…after listening to Kamla Bhasin I felt I cannot preach if my own family does not practice gender equality.”

“I had a fracture and could hardly move and so I wondered if I should go to yet another training program on Gender. After the training with Kamla Bhasin, I started thinking about what was happening in my own family. My younger brother was a nuisance in our family. He abused his wife and when corrected he would ask me to mind my own business and not to do social work at home. I felt bad. I sorted out so many gender issues in my work but had not been able to change my brother. I did not give up on him, especially after listening to Kamla Bhasin. I felt I cannot preach if my own family does not practice gender equality. He has changed now, he shares work in the family, cooks, cleans, prepares children for school, talks to his wife politely and has stopped telling lies. My sister-in-law shared with me the other day that her husband now supports her and even gave her a gift. My elder brother too did no work at all. He ran a ‘curry point’ but his wife had to do all the chores, wash utensils, dishes and even manage the restaurant. He just bossed over her at home and at work. Now he has begun cooking at the curry point.”

Sailakshmi: “Kamla Bhasin’s training got me to act.”

“I had many problems convincing my husband about my timings of work, travel, cooking at home, doing all the domestic work simultaneously. My husband did nothing. He would not even get me a cup of tea, nor would he make one for himself. Kamla Bhasin’s training got me to act. I told him repeatedly that he had to switch on the rice cooker if I was getting late, and not wait for me to come home and cook. He had to remove clothes from the clothesline when it rained and not let them get wet. I kept correcting him all the time about sharing work at home. My son observed what I was saying and has begun to fully participate in household work. Actually he does a lot more than my daughter does.”

Vijayalakshmi: “After I told [my husband] about Kamla Bhasin’s training he got more involved and wanted to know about the gender issues in my work.”

“I was a tailor before I joined MVF. My husband would not understand anything about what I did in MVF and he couldn’t care less. I decided to share everything about my work with him. He slowly became interested and was so happy that I could get 19 children back to school in a village. He also came to know that I worked on girls’ issues and showed interest in that. After I told him about Kamla Bhasin’s training he got more involved and wanted to know about the gender issues in my work. My son too is interested in what I do, joins the gender meetings and even discusses the issues with his friends.”

Jyoti: “I showed [my son] the YouTube films of Kamla Bhasin. He got interested and slowly started to share work at home.”

“My husband is an auto driver and was always suspicious about my work as a mobiliser in MVF. He would impose curfew on my movements and timings. I faced physical violence at home, got scolded but still continued with MVF because I liked my work. Even the neighbours would tell him that I was going out alone, talking on the phone all the time.

After Kamla Bhasin’s training I felt useless. Why must I suffer so much, I thought. I said to myself out of frustration that I would leave MVF as I was not able to help myself at all. My son who is in the second year intermediate noticed that I had become quiet. I opened up to him and told him about how unfair it is for women to be confined to domestic work. I showed him the YouTube films of Kamla Bhasin. He got interested and slowly started to share work at home. At the moment my husband has stopped questioning me and can tolerate my phone calls, even at 11 pm in the night.”

The Ika Chaalu: Enough is Enough project is implemented at the local level by MVF’s field mobilizers. They are all first-generation learners from poor, marginalized, Dalit and Adivasi communities who have struggled to overcome their own challenges in securing an education. They are acutely conscious of the inequalities in the education system and have first-hand knowledge about the culture of schools and residential hostels which can be humiliating and discriminatory. At the same time, they have experienced the transformation that education can bring about, especially to confidence, self-esteem, and life chances, and they know the difference education can make in the lives of children, their families, and the society. They need no convincing about the importance of education; and are willing to make any sacrifice to get every child to school. They are equipped with a sense of justice and fairness and the belief that all children – boys and girls - deserve equal opportunities.

The field mobilizes have all been trained by MVF, they are highly motivated individuals who have internalized MVF’s non-negotiable principles that provide the theoretical framework to their efforts to ensure gender justice and equality for all girls (see for details). Having worked in the earlier child labour/education project of MVF, they have all gained enormous experience which they bring to bear in the Ika Chaalu project. It is their task to interface with the girls, solve the problems and obstacles they face in completing secondary education, and sensitise parents and the community to gender issues. They liaise with teachers, local authorities and institutions to make them partners in the process of delivering gender rights to all adolescent girls. MVF’s field mobilizers are the key link in the process of changing gender and education norms for adolescent girls. In fact, they are the real s/heroes in the process of bringing about norm change at the local level.

The following section has been compiled on the basis of a zoom meetings with MVF field mobilizers during the lockdown on 29-04-2020, 15-10-2020, 17-02-2021 when they spoke about how they operationalize social norm change to achieve universal education and gender equality for adolescent at the local level.

Nuanced Practices of Building Social Norms

The practices of MVF mobilisers evolved in the earlier child labour/education project in the process of planning for every child and their journey out of work and into school. They did not have any tools or training manuals to guide them in this work. Instead, they responded to local contingencies, resolved conflicts as they came up and brought communities together to take a stand on behalf of children. Nuanced processes were initiated by the field mobilisers that involved constant planning, implementing, monitoring, evaluating and learning from each move. They had to count on their experience and intuition to draw from several possibilities of action open to them but always with the end goal of enrolling every child in school and in so doing expand the base of child defenders. When asked the question “How did you rescue a child?”, the answer would often be “through mobilisation” or “we motivated them”. It appeared – to the questioner - as though the complex web of interactions, emotions and thought processes that spurred imagination and creativity in that moment of solving problems just could not be converted into a narrative. Perhaps because the decisions taken by MVF mobilisers were not pre-planned or anticipated at the verticals of MVF. Indeed, the role of MVF as an organisation was to enable the dynamic efforts on the ground, be aware of the challenges and risks, facilitate learning and conceptualising of the practices that emerged in the process of building a social norm.

Although they did not follow a rigid blueprint or sequence of actions, their practices were bound by certain ground rules. For example, they understood the indispensability of every person in the process of changing social norms. Each person was considered equally important and thus even the most difficult employer, stubborn parent, recalcitrant school teacher, corrupt functionary, indifferent politician, insensitive opinion makers, rent seekers, thugs and local dons had to be respected. The challenge was to win them over and change their hearts and minds to become partners in the process of liberating children. For the mobiliser the real victory was in getting the adversaries of the project to becoming children’s advocates. Nobody was an enemy and everyone was a potential partner. The quarrel was not with the person but with the values they held. Dialogue, discussion and engagement with patience had to be adhered to at all times. Non-violence, and the process of dialogue and discussion compelled openness, transparency and inclusion. Non-violence was thus not only a moral force but seen as the only method to democratise societies.

Challenges in changing gender norms

It became obvious in the Ika Chaalu project that the process of getting every child - boys and girls - into school does not automatically resolve gender discrimination and violence against girls in society. While the process of changing social norms remains the same, whether it is to do with child labour or gender discrimination, there are certain specificities that have to be resolved in order to address patriarchy. There are biases against girls at every step and the task of the field mobilizers is to alter the biases that perpetuate gender discrimination and violence. In every community, there are individuals who recognise these biases as being harmful to girls and the role of the field mobilizers is to connect the dots between the individuals who are in agreement on girls’ education and gender equality. For example, the mobilizer may bring together a grandmother, a sarpanch(elected head of local government), school teachers and others in the community who are ready to take a stand in support of girls. In fact they do more than connecting the dots. Through their holistic approach they are able to tackle many forms of gender discrimination and violence such as child marriage, sexual harassment, gender division of labour, lack of mobility, labelling and stigmatisation. They present an alternate world view to the community. In doing so, they begin to see the interlinkages between each of the domains within which gender discrimination has to be combatted.

People conform to existing social norms, because it is expected of them to do so. The MVF field mobilizers play an important role in the process of changing the harmful norms that prevent adolescent girls from completing secondary education and achieving gender equality. Not surprisingly, it is the girls who are the first to become aware of their rights when they are exposed to new values in the project and develop the courage to ask questions. But the community lags behind and does not progress at the same pace to keep in touch with girls and their aspirations. The community has its own concerns about the reputation of the parents and the family if a girl oversteps her expected, prescribed behaviour. It is on such occasions that the field mobilisers play a crucial part in informing and convincing them that their stand is harmful to the wellbeing of girls, and help them think through their fault lines. They provoke them to think along a different paradigm based on giving respect to the girl, her rights and her individuality. This helps the community to gain conviction to support the new ideas and they begin to take moral positions with the full confidence that there is a consensus emerging on the issue. These new ideas are a radical departure and instil a new way of thinking in the community.

From the initial fears that parents have about girls’ mobility and freedom, their attitudes gradually begin to change. They are ready to give equal opportunity to their daughters and often feel that they should support her education because she may not be able to do so after her marriage. They are ready to send their daughters to higher education travelling long distances. They gain strength to contend with insinuations from the community and neighbours that encouraging girls’ mobility would lead to them falling in love or eloping. Curtailing their mobility in in fact an instrumental device for controlling their sexuality and associated freedoms.

The need for a variety of forums and networks

Every public space and institution such as women’s groups, self-help groups, youth associations, farmer’s associations as well as formal structures such as Gram Panchayats (elected local government), Parent Teachers Associations, School Management Committees are reached out to in the process of creating new gender norms. In addition, new institutional arrangements like the Child Rights Protection Forum, Teachers Forum against Child Labour (subsequently Teachers Forum for Child Rights), Adolescent Girls Committees and school Gender Committees are constituted. Depending on the context, or the issue, a federation of each of these forums is constituted with an apex body, while at other times there is a coming together of all the forums.

MVF feels that networks are important, and so multiple networks are built and the members of each network have a distinct role to play. There are also situations where these members wear multiple hats, for example, the same woman is a parent, a member of a self-help group, a school management committee, Gram Panchayat and a child rights protection forum. These overlapping networks are seen as an advantage in building a new social norm. The question is frequently asked about the need for so many forums. MVF believes that each of the forums has a distinct role to play in changing norms and they get activated depending on their leadership and their level of preparedness. They are necessary in bringing people together to have an open debate and discussion based on concrete evidence, and in building a consensus on the new ways of thinking about gender equality and girls’ education. These platforms help to contend with specific cultural practices that thwart the mobility of girls in different communities - Yadavs, Dalits, tribals and nomads – getting them to think, dispelling their fears, and giving them confidence to accept a changed reality in favour of girls. Thus, there is no one size fits all straitjacket approach. Instead, there are several microlevel interventions enabling a common stand on girls. There is after all a strength in numbers and expressions of solidarity in the various forums help to gradually reshape the deeply rooted and inherited norms.

MVF mobilisers have an in-built barometer to gauge the preparedness of individuals in the various forums and also the readiness of the forums as a group to take a stand. Thus the agenda for action is collectively decided and activities such as meeting parents, local bodies, Sarpanches, petitioning to the local government and the district authorities, holding public meetings, meeting the press and escalating the issue to a higher level are all charted out based on these dynamics. The many fears the community have are addressed by the mobilisers with patience. They begin to discuss each of their fears, issue by issue, in all the forums that are set up by the project till the members are ready to take action.

Building a consensus about the need for gender norm change

Harmful practices can change only when there is a consensus in the community about the need for gender norm change. Frequently, even the functionaries of the State and public institutions such as schoolteachers, police and elected representatives who are duty bearers have not internalized constitutional principles. They too adhere to the existing practices that perpetuate inequality and injustice in society and are not ready to accept the idea of girls’ mobility and question parents about why they have given so much liberty to their daughters. Mobility is crucial if girls are to attend secondary schools which are often at a distance from the village. School teachers are reluctant to acknowledge that gender discrimination is an issue in schools and initially resist the idea of MVF mobilisers advising them on girls’ education. They construe it as a threat to their authority in schools. However, after constant interaction there is a change in their attitude towards adolescent children. There is no longer policing or surveillance of children lest they fall in love or elope as they become more sensitized. School teachers are also members of the community and their initial resistance is not by design. In their minds they think that they are actually protecting girls and therefore they argue vehemently, are furious with field mobilizers and at times abusive and even violent. It is the persuasiveness of mobilisers, their patience and their conceptual clarity that ultimately gets the school teachers to see reason. Similarly, religious leaders behave in ways that perpetuate discrimination of girls and become huge barriers to girl’s education. After repeated engagement with them and seeking their support to be a part of the solution, and not the problem, by encouraging girls to pursue education and by refusing to solemnise marriages of underage girls, they have also gradually changed.

Changing social norms on sexuality required a vocabulary as such issues were seldom openly debated or discussed, even though issues of sexuality were being unravelled in practice when there was a discussion on adolescence, hormones, elopement or falling in love. The mobilizers were talking about sexuality without actually using the word. In the beginning, it was not an open point of discussion even among MVF staff but now it is being discussed in various forums, including at the gram panchayat level, when the issue of elopement comes up. Further, the issue of sexual violence has come up for open discussion and debate in public meetings, Ika Chaalu posters, the slogans that the girls raise and in the discussion in the Adolescent Girls’ Committees. Similarly, establishing a new gender norm requires a contestation of patriarchal ideology. In engaging with the community, the mobilizers pitch the dialogue at the level at which the community is ready to receive new ideas and frameworks. While discussing issues like girls’ access to food, equal work burden of boys and girls, sexual harassment or child marriage the underlying current is the pervasive patriarchal norms. They are taken up, confronted and resolved by the field mobilizers.

Strategies used by the Mobilizers

The mobilisers are trained to use case studies and concrete examples in their discussions with members of various forums on issues such as the irrationality of customs, gender inequality, violence perpetrated on girls and the impact of child marriage. Issues of social norms are seldom discussed in a vacuum. Instead, they are brought up through campaigns, public meetings, posters, wall writings, and street theatre. Concrete instances of stopping a child marriage and its impact on the girl and her family are taken up while engaging with the community. These cases are debated and discussed and experiences are shared about how the issue was resolved with the help of community involvement, local institutions and the functionaries of the State. Even when these interventions are sporadic and unplanned they still made an impact on the audience.

In the process of establishing social norms there is a synchronisation of theory and practice embodied in the field mobilisers. Their practice and interventions give meanings to abstract notions of democracy, equality, freedom and justice. They make the community aware of legal remedies and constitutional principles. The values of freedom, equality, rights and justice that are enshrined in the Indian Constitution have not percolated down to the community, local institutions and the functionaries of the system. Thus the old social norms remain unchanged even when they are in contradiction to constitutional principles. Talking about the constitutional principles of social justice, rights and equality creates an immediate connect and a way to build rapport with the community. Translating these constitutional values into every day, daily practices within the family and the community has a lasting value and appeal for public action. While constitutional principles are emphasised, the mobilisers also pitch on moral and ethical values of justice and fairness for girls. Discussions on ethical positions presented by the mobilisers have a lasting value and appeal for public action. For instance, the issue of childhood being denied is very powerful in moving people to take a stand in favour of children and their rights. While the notion of childhood is abstract and thus cannot be guaranteed by law, these discussions do add a normative symbol of what constitutes childhood in practice and how it is being denied to many children in the community.

Voices of Adolescent Girls

The long drawn-out Covid-19 lockdown was lifted in Telangana in the beginning of August 2021. Schools and colleges reopened and the adolescent girls in the Ika Chaalu – Enough is Enough project were finally able to resume their education and project activities could restart. Here are some snippets from what the girls had to say about their experiences of lockdown and its aftermath when a member of the Ika Chaalu team visited the project site in Suryapet on 19 October 2021.

The adolescent girls expressed their despair but at the same time their conversations were so full of hope as well. As has been reported from various other locations, here, too, the girls narrated the enormous difficulties they faced during the lockdown. Lalita, a student of Class 8 said that :

“there was no work, no cash at home, no food reserves and tensions began to brew. Everyone in my family - father, mother, siblings - were irritable over practically everything.”

Girls and boys who should have been in school were pushed into more and more exploitative conditions of work and child labour, drudgery, loss of health and anxiety. Many girls were forced into child marriage and subjected to abuse and violence. Sweta, studying in class 10 said:

“there was no money at home. I joined my mother to work on a chilli farm and later on cotton farms. We together earned Rs. 300-500 a day. It was very tiring. Even when I used to go to school, I would sometimes work during the holidays to earn some pocket money to buy new clothes or text books. That was different. Now I just cannot say no to work. It goes on and on like this day in and day out. I have body aches and pains and cannot even complain”.

To compound their problems came the announcement of online classes which no child wanted to miss. Gender discrimination and precarity rebounded with girls finding it difficult to access and use mobile phones to go online. It was so much easier for their brothers to borrow the phone from their father to catch up with the online lessons. Some parents even invested in buying mobile phones for their children, especially boys. Girls could hardly get their hands on one. Krupa, who is in her first year of undergraduate studies had this to say:

“My older brother monitored every call I made. I once used the mobile to conduct a social survey for which I got paid. He became suspicious, questioned me for using the phone, for making so many calls and accused me of talking to male friends. I tried telling him about the survey. He was so wild that I was answering back that he beat me very badly and locked me up in the room all night. My father was away and mother who was very ill had no strength to protect me from him. In my case the mobile phone only aggravated gender discrimination rather than help me.”

Many a girl worked overtime to buy a mobile phone for herself. Indeed, they carried their phones along with them to work and strained themselves to keep abreast of online classes while at work. At times they took screenshots of their class to reassure their family that they were using the phone for education. They just did not want to miss classes and feared that they would end up getting married at any hint of discontinuing education.

Girls who were part of the Kishore Balika Sanghams (KBS) or Adolescent Girls’ Committees and had been exposed to gender issues and the struggle against patriarchy did not give in to pressures of marriage from the family. They said that participating in KBS meetings had helped them to understand gender violence and stand their ground during the lockdown. They resorted to calling the MVF field mobilisers or Helpline 1098 to rescue them or their friends from marriage (see blog on resisting marriage).

The State has an obligation to protect girls from child labour and child marriage and to provide resources to local bodies to help them cope with the structural pressures of inequality and hunger and provision of shelter. The government could have supplied worksheets, text books, study materials and encouraged children to keep in touch with the world of books and knowledge. They could have given confidence to girls that the closure of schools was only temporary and that they need not agonise over their loss of education. They could have warned the community of dire action should they employ children. They could have parked resources with the gram panchayats should they need to rescue girls and make arrangements to rehabilitate them. Sadly, children were just not on the radar of the system and no such actions were taken.

When asked what they wanted the most, the girls uniformly responded by saying that they wanted to be trusted. Sindhu said:

“I want my family to trust me. When I return home late from college, I get very tense. Once when I got late as I had a special class and missed my bus that evening my entire family - elder sister, mother and father - asked me a barrage of questions insinuating loose behaviour. They did not want to hear me at all. I was so hurt.”

Anuja had a similar complaint:

“Every time I go out, they think I am going to meet my boyfriend and threaten to get me married’.

They were also clear that they were aware that girls and boys would have to work together in this effort. The Gender Committees in schools have helped to win over boys and they were keen for this activity to restart now that schools have reopened. As the discussion on gender committees was going on Jyoti asked a very pertinent question:

“When we are all taught the history of World War I and World War II, why can’t they include the history of patriarchy and rights of girls in our text books? This will help in changing all of us.”

Girls also expressed that they would like to live without fear. Manga said:

“How long do we live with fear and loss of freedom?”

Krupa told the group about her very unusual mother:

“My friends like coming to my house because my mother lets us play and makes us feel comfortable. Sometimes she joins us in our games, singing and dancing with us. She is often criticised in the neighbourhood for this. It does not affect her. She says, we should be free to do what we want, without fear. And at the same time be responsible, she adds. I wish all mothers were like my mother.”

Lavanya elaborated with a very important point about changing social norms in favour of girls:

“There will be change if the entire village is in support of our freedom, mobility and education. We have to work hard to change mindsets. We girls will have to raise our voices to educate and mobilise people in our support.”

All of them agreed that they have to lead the movement for change. They have to know more, be brave and strong. The girls have already taken some steps in this direction by demanding a dedicated space from the Gram Panchayats and negotiating viable accommodation where they can hold their meetings and plan their activities (see blog on Panchayats). This is already opening the way for adolescent girls articulating other demands and getting their voices heard on other matters that concern them. They hope to lead a movement for gender equality, freedom and justice for girls.