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The Crucial Role Played by MVF Field Mobilizers in Changing Gender & Education Norms for Adolescents

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.


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