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“Why can’t they include the history of patriarchy and rights of girls in our text books?”

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.

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