Gram Panchayats as Allies of Adolescent Girls
Realising equal rights and ensuring completion of secondary education for adolescent girls are the main objectives of the Ika Chaalu – Enough is Enough project. Achieving this requires a change in social norms in the community, in institutions and among the functionaries of the State. Motivating, informing and mobilizing members of Gram Panchayats (elected local government) to become defenders of girls’ rights is one of the strategies followed by the project. In this blog we will look at some examples from the field of the positive changes that are possible when Gram Panchayats come on board and become allies instead of adversaries.
A space of their own
In the beginning of August 2021 the lockdown was lifted and girls started to meet through the Kishor Balika Sanghams (KBS) or Adolescent Girls’ Committees. They talked about the lockdown, the pressures put on them to get back to work and to get married, parental fears about elopement and problems with online classes. They shared their yearning to get back to school and continue with their education, no matter what. Almost the first issue they decided to take up was to request the Gram Panchayats to give them a space where they could meet and have the KBS meetings. A space that they could call their own.
In Ravulapalli, the youth association which consists mainly of boys (almost as though girls are not to be considered as ‘youth’) asked the girls to vacate the room in their club and carry out their activities elsewhere. The girls argued that if boys’ youth clubs had a space exclusively for themselves, then they too must claim their space. This was the first demand from the girls of KBS groups. In village after village they started to meet the Sarpanches (elected heads of Gram Panchayats) and impressed upon them what they would do if a room was available. For example, KBS members from Dontanpally, Ponnagutta Thanda and Gopularam Panchayats mentioned that they needed a separate space to conduct meetings, start a library and reading room, and for the planning of midday meals for all children and the distribution of KCR (hygiene) kits. It also meant a space where they could sit to plan for the hoisting of the national flag on August 15th - Independence Day.
Together with the Gram Panchayats, girls began to look for accommodation in their villages. The Sarpanches of Dontanpally and Ponnagutta Thanda permitted them to use the Gram Panchayat building and a DWCRA (Development for Women in Rural Areas) building respectively. The latter Sarpanch also got the entire building cleaned. The Sarpanch of Gopularam provided them with accommodation in a building being used by a local youth association. The Sarpanch of Proddatur gave the KBS some place in the Gram Panchayat office and later provided them with a room in the local school. In Parveda, Dhobipet, Laxmareddyguda and Alamkhanguda they were provided with a room in the health sub-centre, the Gram Panchayat office, the local school, and a DWCRA building respectively. The Sarpanch of Madanpalli gave KBS members some room in the Panchayat office for their meetings and they were later relocated to the Anganwadi Centre (childcare centre). The Sarpanch of Thummala Penpahad identified a place for setting up a Centre and library facilities for KBS members. He also promised Rs 10,000 for the purchase of library books. During a visit by a member of the Ika Chaalu team on 19th October, he spoke with a lot of pride about the three KBS’ - Mother Theresa, PV Sindhu and Poorna Malavath - in his Panchayat and assured all of them that he would take action to stop child marriages. The Sarpanch of Patha Suryapet arranged for a room and library facilities and permitted the girls to borrow the daily newspaper that he subscribes to at home, while the Sarpanch of Koti Nayak Thanda provided KBS members with a room for their meetings and also counseled some youth after the members complained that they were harassing girls. In Siddulur the Sarpanch handed over an old Anganwadi Centre building to them after getting it cleaned. In Mylardevarampally, the Sarpanch responded to a petition by KBS members and gave them some room in the Anganwadi Centre and later shifted them to a bigger hall, which doubles as a library.
Girls’ participation in Gram Panchayat meetings
With the renewed confidence that the girls gained from this success, they next sought to be invited to the Gram Panchayat meetings. The Sarpanches of Parveda and Dhobipet have started inviting two girls each by rotation to attend Gram Panchayat review meetings and Grama Sabhas (village general body meetings). Indeed, KBS members and MVF mobilisers from these two Panchayats have been made members of the Gram Panchayat WhatsApp groups and they receive updates on all developments in these Panchayats.
Significantly, several sarpanches have started to participate in the KBS meetings and listen to the woes and aspirations of the girls. The Sarpanches of Madanpally and Kamareddyguda attended a KBS meeting and took not of the fact that buses were not plying to their villages, forcing girls to take the auto rickshaw to school which they could ill afford. They promised to look into the issue. Likewise, the Sarpanch of Thummala Penpahad and Madanapali has not only been inviting KBS members to meetings of Gram Panchayat and Gram Sabhas but has started to attend the meetings of KBS’ as well. When he heard thatShailaja had dropped out of school after being sexually harassed by local youth on her way to college, he responded immediately by warning the youth and motivated the girl to resume her education. The Mandal Parishad President of Vikaraba – a women - is very active and highly supportive of girl child issues. She attended KBS meetings in 4 villages of the Mandal and raised the issues raised by girls about sanitary napkins, lack toilets in schools and non-availability of bus facilities at the Mandal level meeting.
Girls taking up a diversity of issues
The girls have started bringing up a diversity of issues to be resolved by the Gram Panchayats. In Atmakur (S) Mandal they complained to the Gram Panchayat that they had no teacher for English. They made such a forceful case that the Sarpanch negotiated with the District Education Officer and got a teacher shifted to their school. The triumph of the girls was evident when they narrated this incident. Similarly, the driver of the RTC bus that passes through Kotalaguda didn’t wait long enough for school and college-going children from the village to board the bus and also blew the horn just once to indicate that the bus had arrived. A number of children were missing the bus as a result. The KBS brought this matter to the notice of the Sarpanch, who spoke to the driver and set the situation right. The driver now waits for the children to board the bus and leaves only after they have done so. The Sarpanch of Athvelly got some open wells covered, which posed a threat to small children, in response to a petition by the KBS.
Impact on girls
The convincing manner in which the girls engaged with members of local bodies, put forth their demands for exclusive space and negotiated viable alternate accommodation in the village is indicative of the determination and courage they have gained in the Ika Chaalu project. They have gained this strength through their participation in the KBS meetings and the Ika Chaalu conferences. They have learnt from each other as well. Most of them have emerged triumphant in claiming space for themselves in public centers such as the Gram Panchayats, Anganwadi centers and school. In fact, this has not been just some routine activity, but one which has filled them with energy and given the groups legitimacy and strength. Demanding space in the village had a symbolic value at several levels. It proves that they are visible and individuals in their own right, they are strong enough to take up issues for collective action, they are courageous and prepared to fight for justice, and are mature enough to be taken seriously. Girls who were hesitant and shy earlier and did not go out of their homes are now engaging with the Gram Panchayats. Witnessing the impact of their voices on the Gram Panchayats has filled them with pride, self-belief, and self-confidence.
Even a symbolic activity like hoisting the flag on Independence Day has had a profound impact on the girls. Since the timing of the petitions for space coincided with Independence Day celebrations, the girls quickly moved to planning for taking part in the ceremonies. There was a flurry of activity in which they spoke to the Gram Panchayats and youth associations and grabbed the leadership to hoist the flag in the middle of the village. This was significant as it made them feel that they were equal citizens with rights as guaranteed by the Constitution of India and there was no stopping them!