Attendees at 2019 Leaders for Change Summit
There’s a low hum in the room. At first I look around, slightly annoyed, thinking someone is having a side conversation during the speaker’s presentation. Then I realize the sound is coming from a facilitator who is simultaneously translating the current lecture from Hindi to Bengali for two of the participants. When you are hosting a conference for young women from across India who speak multiple languages, this is standard operating procedures and critical to making sure everyone is included.
This is Day 2 of Shadhika’s inaugural “Leaders for Change Summit” in Mumbai. Over the course of three and a half days, these young women will learn skills to design and develop projects to advance girls’ rights in their communities. In a country like India, which last year was named the most dangerous place to be born a girl, such efforts are essential and courageous. These young women have pledged to carry out projects in the coming year on a range of issues from child marriage, to sexual harassment and safety, to the right to education, to voting rights.
Even with the simultaneous translation, you can hear a pin drop. Everyone is completely taken in by our guest lecturer, Sharad Sharma, from World Comics Network, who is teaching us how to tell our stories through comics. “Everyone has a story. Everyone can draw. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be true.” Powerful messages for these young women who have been told for years that their opinions do not matter and who often feel their very lives only belong to their future husbands.
As the opening lecture finishes, the girls are unleashed to draw their own comics. Their focus is unwavering and the emotional release of being able to tell their story in graphic form is palpable. Language barriers fall away as their images come to life of parents, teachers, and men in their community who repeatedly serve to limit their dreams.
I stop at Shehnaz’s* table and ask her to tell me about her comic. Pointing to the first panel, she haltingly translates her story for me from Hindi to English. “The daughter says to her mom, ‘Mom, I’m first in my studies, I want to continue.’ The mother says she has to ask her father. He tells her, ‘It is enough for her. She does not need to study.’”
We move on to the third panel in her strip, showing our protagonist’s life after marriage. “Her husband is complaining to her mother-in-law that he doesn’t have enough money to support the family. ‘If your wife had studied,’ the mother-in-law accuses, ‘she could have helped us.’” Shehnaz falls silent, looking grimly at what she has drawn, the weight of her predicament laid bare on the page.
Shehnaz’s project is to work on a girl’s right to an education. Her issue is urgent in a country where 70% of girls between 6-16 are forced to dropout of school. Over the next year she will hold one on one discussions with parents in her community about the importance and benefits of educating their daughters and will actively intervene to re-enroll girls in school. Her goal is to re-enroll at least 10 girls in the coming year.
When the lecturer started this workshop, he cautioned us that there would be no drawing of superheroes in this session. When I turn to Shehnaz, I know this is not true. As she looks at me with a knowing smile, I can see the cape in her eyes.
*name changed for safety