I’ve just got back a few hours ago from my first visit to the project in Vishrantwadi. Wow. Reading about it on paper and seeing it on the ground in action are two very different things. I just wanted to share my feelings, as I’ll write a more detailed report and share the stories of the girls that I met when I get back to our Karuna office in London.
Up until now, I never fully experienced how limited the life choices of the girls involved in the project are. Most of them live in the slums of Vishrantwadi, and many don’t even attend school. I met many girls who used to go and now don’t go. Having said that, I also met girls who have re-enrolled at school since being part of the life Skills classes that the project runs. For many of the girls, even obtaining permission from their parents to attend activities such as computer classes or life skills training has been an uphill struggle. Some parents remain under the assumption that to invest in the development of girls in this way is futile. Karunaprabha, the leader of this project, and her formidable stuff are key in helping to overcome this barrier. It is clear that over the years that the project has been running they have gained the trust of many in the communities in which they are working in. Through open conversation they are often able to convince reluctant parents to let their girls attend classes.
I was lucky to be able to see many activities today – I saw the computer and sewing classes in action, watched an awareness-raising street play on anaemia, a rally by girls against child marriage and I met with one of the life skills class groups. I also did two visits to the homes of beneficiaries, one from the sewing class and one from the life skills group. I was really humbled by the work that is going on – how hard the women leading the project work and their capacity for empathy, but also the enthusiasm and zeal with which the girls engage. I had underestimated the impact that this project is having in transforming the lives of the girls; not only this, but the role that this project is playing in creating a new generation of empowered women in India.
I know that I take the level of control that I have over my own life for granted. For me, it’s not the absence of options, but having too much choice that’s often the problem.
I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like to have no choice, to have your future pre-determined in some way.
Let’s take a look at this:
No formal schooling. Low self-esteem. Poor communication skills.
Likely end result on an individual level:
Married under 18. Domestic violence. Poor health.
Likely end result on a broader level:
Strengthening of discriminatory values towards women in society. Propelling this cycle for future generations to come.
This is the cycle that many adolescent girls in Pune’s urban slums find themselves trapped in. Lacking formal competencies and not knowing how to realise their fundamental legal rights, these girls are among the most marginalised in Indian society. The Right to Freedom is longstanding in India, yet this has remained a paper tiger for many of these adolescent girls. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Through the work of the Women’s Empowerment Project, things are changing.
Let’s look at this alternative scenario:
Essential life skills. Vocational skills training. Statutory rights awareness. Hygiene and nutrition training.
Confidence and an appreciation of self-worth. Financial autonomy. Improved long-term health and reduction in maternal and neonatal mortalities due to poor nutrition.
Positive changes in societal attitudes towards adolescent girls. More girls living with dignity and respect. Improved lives of many young girls who will become the women and mothers of the future.
The Empowerment Project has already gone a considerable way to making this scenario a reality. Here are just a few ways how it has been doing this:
Helping others to help themselves
Many of the adolescent girls that this project works with have appeared resigned to the prospects of their not-so-bright futures. It needs to be clear though, that this doesn’t indicate a wilful acceptance of their ‘lot’. On the contrary it has stemmed from a deeply-entrenched sense of fatalism in many cases. This is changing, however.
This project has been empowering girls by successfully equipping them with essential life-skills. Economic empowerment has been a real area of success:
And here’s what all this has meant in practice for Shilpa –
Before I could not even talk in group and used to feel shy to interact with people. I had very low confidence within me but now I feel I have a very bright future. I got confidence that now I can earn money by stitching clothes in my own business, no need of doing domestic work. - Shilpa Jagnaath Pawale, Vishrantwadi
From ignorance to agency
The maxim that ‘ignorance is bliss’ doesn’t really ring true in this case. In fact, knowledge is often the vital ingredient that can transform the sense of powerlessness experienced at an individual level to one of agency. Much of the work of the Women’s Empowerment Group has centred on breaking the taboos that are prevalent in conservative and patriarchal Indian society
Helping girls to access information so that they can make informed choices has been crucial, as has their being well-versed in issues directly impeding their health and safety has been crucial:
Here’s a glimpse of the impact that these initiatives are having –
I attended sex education through which we came to so many things regarding body changes as well as physiological changes during adolescent age. Nowhere we get such information but this project is giving and helping us to cope with the situation. - Komal, Bhimnagar
All for one and one for all
It is routinely the case that attempts at realising progressive change encounters resistance from key stakeholders. In the case of this particular project, attempts at change have often come up against deeply-entrenched attitudes on perceptions of both caste and gender roles. This makes it all the more important to build and sustain relationships in the broader community that foster understanding and support for the cause. One of the major strengths of this project to date has been the level of harmony and co-operation witnessed between various stakeholders. This impact, although not lending itself to quantification ought not to be underestimated:
A huge thank you for your generous donations that have been turning the vision of empowered adolescent girls into a reality. In particular we’ve seen donations coming in more and more since our last update, which is just great. I hope that you find this update useful and can share in our joy at the changes taking place on the ground.
As ever though, a lot of work remains to be done in order to maintain the momentum that has been built up so far. So please continue to give what you can and also to raise awareness about this critical cause.
If you have any feedback or any specific questions about the project then I would love to hear from you.
Many thanks again.
A recent testimonial from Girjia, one of the many girls reaping the benefits of this project:
Name: Girjia Hosmani, 22 years old.
Community: Burma cell
I am Girija staying at Burma cell. My personality is somewhat introverted. I never shared or opened myself up in front of anybody before I joined this life skill class. Side by side I have completed my computer class as well. Though I am an elder in the class, I feel ok because I am getting good knowledge about how to lead my life independently. I would like to share my testimony. I have come from a poor family and I have a big number of family members. We don’t get a proper diet. I used to feel giddy and sometimes tiredness but I ignored it all the time. One day the Women’s Empowerment Project (WEP) ran a programme of free haemoglobin (HB) check-up and I had one myself.
Dr. Mune told me that my HB is only 6, whilst the minimum normal level is 12. She gave me information on looking after my diet and gave me medicines. From that day I decided to look after my own diet. I took medicines and it helps me to improve my HB level.
I am very much grateful to the WEP and send my warm thanks.
I am very pleased to report that thanks to your generosity, we have now raised over $1,000 for girls living in very difficult circumstances in slums in Pune, Maharashtra, India.
Please be assured that your donation is having a dramatic impact. It would not be an overstatement to say that this project is life changing for the girls who come into contact with it.
One such girl is Archana, who tells us her story:
“I am Archana staying at Burma cell (slum in Pune). I have 3 sisters and 4 brothers.
My father is a farmer. We have chili machine, mother look after that machine. She grinds chili and prepares gravy masala (spice) and is earning money.
After my tenth (aged 16) mother asked me not to go for school. I was told to be at home and learn household activity. Parents were worried about my marriage.
One day guests came to see me. They proposed me for marriage. In our community girls are not allowed to see bridegroom. Quietly I greed all that told by parents. And I got engagement with him.
He was 8th pass (aged 14) and was at home. I was realizing my future is blank. I was so sad to whom to concern, to whom to ask? One day I went for women`s empowerment life skill class.
On this day Manisha Tai and Smita Tai (project community workers) were discussing on topic of decision making with girls. I got struck. I did not sleep whole night.
Next morning as soon as Manisha entered in our community I rushed to her and told about my tragedy. She gave me emotional support.
I got a kind of daring within me. Finally I dare to break my engagement with whom I was not at all happy. I got relief. Now I am happy. I have finished my sewing machine class and have join computer class. I thank to you all and to Dr. Manda Mune (project leader) and to all women`s empowerment project staff and wish my best luck.”
Thank you for your generous and ongoing support. I hope you find this partnership valuable and worthwhile. I know the economy is tough, so thank you for investing your hard-earned money on our cause.
Please consider telling your friends and family about our project - share the link on your blogs or social networks, use the tell-a-friend feature on the project page to email your network, or just bring us up in conversation. You know your friends and family best so use your own words - tell them why you chose our project and what it means to you.
If you have any feedback I would love to hear from you. In the meantime I will continue to send stories from the girls whose lives you are helping to improve.
Thank you again for all you have done to help this cause.
I am writing to say thanks so much for all your support in allowing this project to go ahead. Your generosity is helping adolescent girls have a voice, gain confidence and escape the poverty of slums in Pune, Maharashtra. Contrary to popular perception, Maharashtra is one of India’s poorest states, behind only Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. An Economic survey (2004-05) released by the Maharashtra Planning Commission revealed the poverty ratio in the state is 30.7 per cent. If this figure were measured by international methods on disposable income (living on less than USD $1.25, per person, per day), the figure would be nearer 50%.
You’re helping young women such as Nilam Shinde (21) who joined the project in March. Nilam lives in a slum district of Pune known as Tingare Nagar. Nilam tells us her story:
“ I am Nilam staying at Tingare Nagar. First of all greetings to all. My father is rickshaw driver and mother is a housemaid. I have one brother. He is studying. After my 10th (standard) I was at home, use to help my mother. I was jobless due to my education and was unskilled.
One day I came to know about women’s empowerment project and its vocational training. I went to office and took admission.
With my full of attention I learn everything whatever thought by my teacher. After completing my course I got job as a computer operator in Yerwda (district of Pune). Now I am getting 5,000 rupees (USD $100 per month) of salary. I am really happy that because of this project I am here and earning money.
I am really grateful to you for your kindness. I too am thankful to Karunaprabha (project leader) and her team and wish her the best to do best for women like me who are really in need. Thanking you."
Thanks again so much for your generosity. This is one of our most successful project, thanks to the dedication of a locally recruited social work team of women who know these communities and the girls’ needs. Please do spread the word. Many thanks.
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