Indian girls and women who live in poor, rural areas have a particularly difficult life with limited choices. Due to lack of education and opportunity, many find themselves married in their teenage years. For girls, this is a condemning path of dropping out of school, teenage pregnancy, dependency, abuse and malnutrition. In the region Nishtha serves, like many in rural India, most girls and women live on less that $2 a day.
Nishtha’s kishore bahinis adolescent girl groups meet every Sunday to discuss everything from girls’ rights to personal hygiene, stage dramas in the village to educate community members against child labor and child marriage, and protest when girls are taken out of school. Together they learn to become empowered individuals, find support in each other and power as a group.
The monsoon is relentless. I lose my footing and slide around unbalanced in my muddy flip-flops. The slight girl holding my sleeve, leading me to her home, looks up wide-eyed, gripping tighter to support me—I hear women behind me breathe a sigh of relief as I stabilize. Now three girls are guiding me to the home, holding on even after we enter as the ground is still slick. Many of the girls I am visiting in remote Kochpukur village live in make-shift housing that is more plastic, cobbled together from government issued tarps and plastic bags, than not—it rains both indoors and out.
Extreme poverty, lack of job opportunities, rampant alcoholism among males, domestic abuse, poor quality of public schools, child labor, child marriage and a severe gender divide are daily challenges in West Bengal. “I had started school, but my father told me to stop and earn some money because for that money I could help maintain some regular food. It was not sufficient, but it was contributing something,” Priyanka Naskar, 16, tells me, staring over my shoulder. “All my family works, but at night sometimes all of us or sometimes just my mother does not have any food.”
After fifth grade, Priyanka was pulled out of school to labor in neighboring fields for meager wages and do beading work on saris, an ubiquitous, low paying, time consuming work for women and girls in India. Conditions became so dire that at one point Priyanka’s father, a tenant farmer, considered giving her away as a domestic servant so she would at least be able to eat. Marrying her, so she would be another’s property and thus responsibility, was another option.
“My parents never asked me whether I would like to go to school, whether I liked household duties, whether I should be a child laborer,” says Priyanka. “So I thought I should earn, but after joining Nishtha I saw this is not my destiny.” A grassroots organization founded by women, Nishtha works unremittingly to keep girls in school and develop sustainable livelihoods for illiterate women as a way to break cyclical poverty. Nishtha supports girls’ education by providing school fees, uniforms and after school and weekend tutoring; employing social workers to educate and encourage parents to send daughters to school; and forming adolescent girl groups called kishore bahinis. In the groups, girls learn about hygiene and healthy habits, make posters to hang in the community on girls’ rights, rally against child marriage and support each other in staying in school. For example, if a girl is pulled from school, the kishore bahinis groups mobilize to protest at the girl’s house and persuade the parents to let her return.
Munching on coconut flesh, Priyanka and I discuss the changes in her life since joining Nishtha. “One day I started talking about a girl’s rights to education and I told my parents I will go to school regularly up until class 12. My mother and father were surprised and said, ‘Your right? What right? You have no rights.’ I try to convince them everyday. Now my mother is thinking about my right to play, right to equal food as my brother, right to school, right to love and care.”
Priyanka struck a compromise with her parents to stay in school: Nishtha pays the school fees and Priyanka still beads saris at night to contribute to the family coffers. With Nishtha’s emphasis on empowerment training in the kishore bahinis groups, girls no longer follow in their mothers’ footsteps, silently acquiescing to violence and poverty as lesser citizens.
“I have all the rights to equal food and equal opportunity,” asserts Priyanka. “Everyday I have to cook, but why not my brother? He is not doing anything, not washing clothes, cooking food. And every one is creating pressure on me. Sometimes I now refuse to cook food unless my brother helps me.” Even small victories in a home kitchen add up to big changes for this generation of girls.
Organic solutions are growing at Nishtha, but more resources are needed. Priyanka and the girls of Nishtha want to know:
How can girls persuade boys, including brothers, to be their allies even if it means boys have to do more chores as a result?
Help seed the change by posting your answer in the comments section! Your answer will not only help Nishtha, but it could be worth US$2,000 for this group. In March 2014, two of the most innovative answers posted by readers throughout the life of this blog will be chosen, and the organizations that elicited the best two answers.
Featured this week is Elige, Red de Jóvenes por los Derechos Sexuales y Reproductivos, growing organic solutions for girls in Mexico City, Mexico.
The prevalence of machismo culture, or having a strong sense of masculine pride, in Mexico is seen as a threat to females and also to LGBT people as it is associated with homophobia. Often used to describe male aggression and violence, machismo was appropriated by Latina feminists and scholars in the 1960s and 70s to criticize the patriarchal structure in Latino communities. Domestic violence, street harassment and the perception of females as lesser citizens remain ingrained barriers for girls and women in Mexican society.
Elige, Red de Jóvenes por los Derechos Sexuales y Reproductivos, (Choose, Youth Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights), founded in 1996 by a group of young feminist activists, seeks to empower girls and young women through promoting and defending reproductive and sexual rights in Mexico. The Elige network works on the principle that it is easier and more effective for young people to discuss, inform others and ask questions in a peer environment and in their own space. Elige has designed peer training and advocacy programs to raise awareness and interest in the promotion of sexual rights issues and to participate in campaigns to stop violence against women.
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