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:
All girls must be in a full-time school or any full-time education stream until completion of 18 years.
Girls and boys must enjoy equal opportunities to pursue education and build their capabilities.
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.
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.
The discourse on gender equality must be introduced into the school curriculum from Class 1 onwards.
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.
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.
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.