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The Ika Chaalu project started in 2014 to universalize education for adolescent girls from 8 to 12th standard in three districts of Telangana: Rangareddy, Vikarabad and Suryapet. The project aims to keep girls in school or get them back in school, meanwhile addressing a broad range of obstacles that keep girls out of school such as gender discrimination, child labor, early marriage, cultural barriers, safety and security, adequate facilities, teacher presence and physical mobility. The goal is that all adolescent girls in the project area should be able to access and complete secondary education (up to and including 12th standard). The approach used in the Ika Chaalu project is based on the approach developed by MV Foundation (MVF) to eradicate child labor and universalize education.

The Ika Chaalu project is rooted in the belief that it is possible to change the patriarchal values that rule society, and thus the actions undertaken in the project are based on the possibility of a change in the social norms that are associated with or are a reflection of patriarchy. The project has its foundation in a rights-based approach; it is based on principles of equality, universality, social justice and claims on the State to meet its obligations. Universality is not only an underlying principle but also an integral part of the entire project approach. This means that everyadolescent girl in the designated project area is tracked and targeted, every girl is known, and data on them is collected and updated on a regular basis by the field mobilizers. Every girl is heard and motivated and the problems of each and every one of them are resolved. The project does not focus on specific target groups, like Dalits or Adivasis, victims of sexual abuse, child marriage, child labor or trafficked children. Every girl matters in the geographical area in which the project operates.


A set of non-negotiable principles, which were discussed with and agreed on by the girls during a state level conference, provide the framework for all interventions and strategies related to the work for adolescent girls’ education and gender equality.” These non-negotiables are:

  1. All girls must be in a full-time school or any full-time education stream until completion of 18 years.

  2. Girls and boys must enjoy equal opportunities to pursue education and build their capabilities.

  3. Presence in an education institution should be a pre-condition for building awareness on reproductive health care, sex education and life skills for both boys and girls.

  4. Arguments such as domestic work, distance to schools, lack of safety for girls, eve teasing, increase in dowry, sibling care, poverty, and pressure of marriage are mechanisms used to control girls’ bodily integrity and deny them education, choices, opportunities, mobility, autonomy, and are therefore unacceptable.

  5. The discourse on gender equality must be introduced into the school curriculum from Class 1 onwards.

  6. Youth clubs must be non-gendered, secular spaces where all members are equal, without distinctions of gender, caste, religion, disability or any other forms of discrimination.

  7. No girl should marry before attainment of 18 years of age. Child Marriage law must be amended to nullify marriage of all girls until 18 years of age.

  8. Even after attainment of 18 years, the girl’s decision and choice for her marriage is to be given full support.

The project carries out all its activities informed by these non-negotiables. The link between girls’ (continued) education, a campaign against gender violence and for gender equality and vice versa is inextricable and implies that all work and all activities need to carried out in a holistic way.


Ika Chaalu: converting sites of discrimination to sites for resolution of conflict.


Gender discrimination is pervasive in Telangana, as in the rest of India, and there are several sites where that becomes evident. The first site, of course, is the home. Discrimination at home is found in the division of labour, the hierarchy in eating, the lack of leisure time for girls, the fact that they do not get new clothes where boys do, the pressure of work and marriage, the norms of behaviour, and the lack of time and space given to girls for homework and exams. Girls have generally no freedom and mobility to visit friends, a market, public spaces or to walk alone without an escort. Unfortunately, violence and verbal abuse, beatings, insults and humiliation are considered “normal.” Many girls suffer from emotional anxiety and trauma, and have to deal with insinuations and suspicions from the communities they live in. Furthermore, for most girls the threat of child marriage looms over their life.


The second site, which should actually be a safe site, are schools. Schools should be safe spaces where all students are considered equal. However, practices of gender discrimination in schools include the uneven treatment of boys and girls, staff exercising controls over adolescent girls lest they have boyfriends, or even just friends who are boys. Girls are often given the tasks of cleaning the classrooms, school premises and toilets, while boys distribute textbooks, clean the blackboard and assist the teachers in monitoring the class. While boys are encouraged to play games, participate in sports activity and given sports material to play volleyball, football or cricket, girls are ignored or confined to play ‘kho kho’. Seldom do boys and girls have mixed participation in games. Boys also take an active role staying after school hours to plan and take up some responsibilities in celebrations of school functions like the Annual Day, Independence Day or Republic Day. In general, teachers pay less attention to the education of girls and their performance or even their names, often calling them by nicknames which the girls find derogatory. In addition, girls who are married and/or separated are denied access to education.


The third site of gender discrimination is in society. In society there is stigmatisation of girls for being vocal, strong, for having and expressing leadership qualities, for having personal aspirations, ambitions and goals. More often than not girls get stigmatised even when they are victims of violence and abuse, when they are married off in child marriage, or when they elope and get married.


The activities under the Ika Chaalu project aim at transforming sites of conflict to become sites for resolution of those conflicts in favour of girls’ education, a more equal situation at home, within the family, and the elimination of gender discrimination in the neighbourhood, schools, hostels and institutions. Furthermore, the goal is to change the attitude of teachers, elected officials and other government functionaries. Similarly, work is carried out to create awareness and transform sites of gender discrimination so that they become sites of gender equality.

To do so, the project not only works with adolescent girls directly, but also with boys, parents, teachers and community members. It is considered essential to build the capacities of Gram Panchayats (elected local bodies), School Management Committees, youth associations and women’s groups, as they are the key institutions that give support to girls and make it possible for them to not only assert and exercise agency but also to fulfil their aspirations.


Yet another site of conflict is the gaps in the legal and policy framework wherein the principles of universality, social justice and equality are compromised resulting in exclusion of children from claiming their rights. Therefore, there is a constant effort to make claims on the State to meet its obligations. The actions on the ground in combatting gender discrimination and enabling girls’ education gaps are identified in state and national laws and policies, like the POCSO act, Child Marriage Act, the Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, and the Right to Education Act. A specific example of a gap in or issue with the law is the fact that the right to secondary education is lacking in the Right to Education Act.


This approach followed by the Ika Chaalu project is a gradually unfolding process which requires an enormous amount of dedication and personal involvement from the field mobilisers, from the girls themselves, indeed from everyone involved, but it does result in a significant and sustainable shift in practices, and in lasting gender norm change.

Ika Chaalu” - enough is enough. Adolescent girls assert their rights for gender justice and equality.


Ika Chaalu!

Sharirik Hinsa: Ikka Chaalu!

Mansik Hinsa: Ikka Chaalu!

Laingika Hinsa: Ikka Chaalu!


Enough is Enough!

Physical violence: enough is enough

Mental violence: enough is enough

Sexual violence: enough is enough


Ika Chaalu” has become the rallying cry of adolescent girls in parts of the Indian states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. It is a slogan coined by the girls themselves for a series of workshops organized at the village, district and state levels and attended by activists, policy makers and inspirational figures. They provide a platform where girls can speak up and speak out freely for their rights and shed light on issues of gender justice. When the girls say “Ika Chaalu” they use their voice to explain what they mean: they have had enough of all forms of gender-based violence and the rights-violations that they experience on a daily basis. The girls use this forum to demand access to education until the completion of Secondary School and an end to discrimination in all its forms. These workshops are electrifying events – the sense of empowerment and the clarity with which the girls analyze their situation as they go up to the podium to speak is palpable.


When the M.V. Foundation (MVF) and Charity Fund Rijsholt embarked on a project for adolescent girls in 2014, the main goal was to ensure universal education for girls in the 14-18 age group. MVF’s earlier work included very strong strategies to get all children out of labor and into school, and the project partners believed that the same approach would be useful for the older age-group as well. To start with it was important to document how many adolescent girls lived in the project area, and whether they were in or out of school. MVF staff and volunteers went door-to-door to gather this information. Every adolescent in the project area is now known, furthermore every girl is known, as is her situation - because every girl is important.


Girls’ groups have been formed at village and school levels, and so have “gender committees”- consisting of adolescent boys and girls who come together in a safe space, to dialogue, normalize interaction between boys and girls, foster understanding and enable change. MVF staff are always present to guide these discussions. Adolescents discuss gender issues, share their concerns and problems but also their dreams, and make it ‘normal’ to talk about gender inequalities.


The fact that they are organized in groups makes them stronger, they can support each other and know they have support in actually changing things in their communities, starting first with addressing gender inequalities and injustices within their families.


MVF staff and volunteers – who are a part of the community - speak regularly with parents, teachers, local government and schools to bring the whole community on board. As a result, the attitude within the community towards education and child marriages has significantly changed. The question why adolescent girls should be in school is no longer asked. Instead, there is a consensus that they should not work, nor should they be married, and their place is in school.

Girls who pass 8th and 10th standards, are informed of their options and they are supported in various ways to continue their studies to the next level. When girls are absent or don’t communicate, fellow group-members take action to ensure they don’t drop off the radar. They follow up through the right channels, be it mobilizers, teachers, local government bodies or police.


The structures that have been put in place have made it possible to have an adequate response to the needs of adolescent girls during the COVID-19 lockdown. While the situation is far from ideal, the adolescent groups and the intricate networks created have not disappeared, they have merely shifted online. Parents who had got used to their daughters being in school, were less hesitant to get a smartphone for them to follow online classes. Furthermore, since the adolescents in the project area are now comfortable discussing gender injustice and sensitive issues, they not only have the means but also the vocabulary to continue to reach out and to address their plight.

The girls strengthen their own resolve to fight for their rights and complete their secondary education.


Ika Chaalu: enough is enough is not just a slogan anymore for these girls, not just a rallying cry, but also the basis for action. Girls know it is their right to demand a better future, as well as a better today.


NB: The conventions and group meetings (girls’ groups and gender committees) will start again when the pandemic subsides.


Links:

MVF https://mvfindia.in

Charity Fund Rijsholt https://www.charityfundrijsholt.com


Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, our regular visits to the field have perforce been replaced by online meetings, both with MV Foundation staff who manage different aspects of the project, as well as with field staff who facilitate and implement the project on the ground. While far from ideal, these virtual meetings have helped to keep us informed of progress and new developments in the project and of the coping mechanisms used by the girls and the field staff to keep as much of the project momentum going during lockdown as is possible. The closure of schools and residential hostels, accompanied by the loss of family incomes and livelihoods, has inevitably put pressures on the girls to revert to labour or to get married. Their ability to resist has changed from year one of the pandemic, when they could still hold out hope of things reverting to normal, to year two when the girls often find themselves unable to resist family demands and pressures. However, not all the feedback we get is negative. Amid the hopelessness, there are also stories of extraordinary resilience, cooperation among the girls, of families going to great lengths to ensure that their girls can continue with their education, and of dedication, commitment and creative problem-solving by the field staff. Social media and WhatsApp groups are some of the tools that have used to keep the girls connected to each other. They have provided an invaluable means for field staff to keep track of each and every girl in their project area, much as they would have done on the basis of personal visits in the past, and to respond to issues as they come up.


Our aim in this blog is to record some of the rich online discussions we have had on the project from the start of the pandemic with a view to capturing voices from the field and tracking the ever changing and evolving impact of the pandemic on the girls and their families. The blog will also provide us with a platform where we can highlight the innovative strategies that are used to ensure that every adolescent girl in the project area gets to complete secondary education, and the achievements of the project, both pre- and post-pandemic. We hope, in the process, to create a forum for debate and discussion on issues around gender, education and social norm change.


Above all, the objective of this blog is to go beyond outcomes and document the process that is crucial to seeing how organizations work and the ideas, energy and commitment, and often personal sacrifices, of project staff who make change happen in the field. We hope that this will humanize the project and link it to the efforts of the people on the ground who make it what it is. It will help us to record the memory for subsequent actors to both acknowledge and be inspired by their peers in earlier periods.