Sahas, an initiative by Mona and Purvi, is trying to tackle gender related issues which have remained a sensitive topic in our society
“Bhaiya, why do you think a boy asking for a sanitary pad is frowned upon?”, asked Nisha in an unperturbed fashion. There was no mincing of words. For a moment, I was taken aback. I was meeting Nisha for the first time. She is a 14 year old, and lives in JJ Colony of Dwarka, Sector-3. She is currently studying in Grade 9 of Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya, Dwarka, Sector 3. For her age, Nisha has surely understood the baseless taboo created around the sanitary pads. “After all, it is a part of female biology”, she adds.
Nisha, along with 25 other girls, is attending the month long workshop by Sahas, an organisation creating a space for conversations around gender issues. All the girls are in the age group of 12-14 years and are comfortably sitting in a circle, which also comprises of Mona, Purvi and Vineet. Mona and Puvi have co-founded Sahas last year. Vineet is a professional with NABARD and is volunteering with Sahas for last 6 months. Today, the girls are discussing the social construct of gender, existing gender roles in society, and their inconspicuous impact on our psyche.
As girls walk into a room to watch a small movie on the gender roles, Purvi explains, “It is very important for us to sit in a circle. The issues which we are discussing, are considered a taboo in our society. Unless one feels very safe and secure, free of any judgement, one won’t be able to share his/her thoughts comfortably. In a circle, there is no ‘you and I’, everyone is part of the same space and is sharing it equally with everyone else.” Purvi’s words echo in the confidence of girls when they come back to the circle and start discussing on the detrimental effects of gender role in our society.
Vineet shares his experiences, where being a man, certain things are expected of him, even if he is not willing. On the contrary, he is not allowed to perform some tasks which he enjoys. “I love cooking, but I am never allowed to, as my mother feels that it is not a man’s job to do so!”, he adds. After Mona and Purvi share their experiences about the times, when they were made to realise that ‘they are girls and need to do things differently’. After this, the girls sat in smaller groups and reflected upon the times when they were made to realise that the society functions as per gender constructs.
“When I was coming for the workshop, I was getting late and I hate being late. But, I had to cook lunch for my family. My brother was playing with his phone yet he wasn’t obligated to cook. If he would have cooked today, I wouldn’t have been late”, shared Pushpa, another bubbly 13 year old. There are very subtle ways in which our gender related perceptions are built, brick by brick, action by action. “From last year, my mother has forbidden me from wearing shorts. Dupatta is mandatory, when I venture out of my home,” Gauri offered, with an tinge of curiosity in her voice.
The story of Sahas
Nisha, Pushpa and Gauri are not aberrations. Each one of us go through same behavioural patterns, sudden changes in our physical and mental space, and same set of questions. The adolescent years are the most difficult ones, as the rational part of our brain starts developing and it wants answers for all the questions it comes across. Unfortunately, our societal setup doesn’t encourage much questioning and the crucial issues are hushed under the carpet. This has strong repercussions on our impressionable minds. By the time we are full grown adults, our mindsets have been cemented on weaker grounds and it negatively affects our daily lives in subtle ways.
Nirbhaya incident was an eye-opener for Mona, who was doing her Masters in Psychology at that time. She admits that she has also grown up having gender biases, but the horrific incident shook her to the core. “I started wondering, what is the use of my education, if it can’t prevent gender violence. I was grieved by the horror of that event, I attended protest marches, lit candles at India Gate. I also realised that things are not going to change unless we proactively work to change the mindsets in the society”.
It took her some time to understand the root of the whole issue. In the meantime, she attended gender related workshops and conferences, worked with different communities and individuals, before actually start working on gender issues. In all of her endeavours, Purvi was her constant companion. In most of the session they attended, they realised that the events and mindsets during the childhood, shape up the whole persona of any individual. It was after lot of deliberations, Sahas finally kicked off in June, 2016.
Lifecycle of gender bias
Gender bias is not a monolithic structure which can be tackled through a linear approach. It is systematically built over the years with numerous issues contributing to its existence. The first challenge in front of Mona and Purvi was to design the workshops in a way that it strikes the whole paradigm of gender bias comprehensively. On one hand, they definitely wanted to talk about the issues of child sexual abuse and gender violence. On the other they realised that such issues are not born out in isolation. They are results of deeply embedded fears and insecurities.
More research opened up several avenues for them. They realised that the issues of one’s own identity, understanding own emotions, our body image, peer pressure, etc create a much deeper impact on our psyche. The knowledge of biological functioning of our body, puberty related body changes, menstruation are some crucial information pieces which builds up the understanding of teenagers. And all this are driven by our existing social constructs of patriarchy and misogyny. Mona and Purvi realised that in order to uproot the gender bias, an individual need to have a coherent understanding of all such issues.
Designing the curriculum was just the first step; finding the right audience was next. In the longer run, Sahas would want to work with all set of people, across the boundaries of social and economic classes. But, in the initial phases, the target audience should be carefully picked on. On much deliberations, they chose to start with under-served communities first. Mona explains, “There is a clear lack of opportunities in the slum areas. Parents leave their kids unattended as both of them go for work, which leaves the kids prone to gender violence. Most of the families live in a single room setup, where at tender age, the kids witness their parents having sex. Since, their questions related to it are not answered, it leaves them with a scarred conscience.”
They worked with the adolescents of Kathputli colony on the topic of masculinity. When they actually started the work, they realised challenges are much more than they could have imagined. Purvi reminisces, “We were having a workshop, which was attended by both boys and girls. After one of the session on body image, this 11 year old comes to me and says that he and her sister won’t come for the sessions from now on. Upon asking the reason, he mentioned that this kind of knowledge is going to ‘spoil’ them. It was a stark realisation for me. I wondered that at this age itself, the kids have decided that such things are bad influence! This, however, made my resolve stronger as I realised that this mindset is what I want to change”
Courage to continue
In the initial few sessions, dropouts were many. Boys were too hesitant to attend the sessions with girls and vice versa. Sometimes, when the session got too awkward, they didn’t know how to
bring back the normalcy. Many parents and caregivers were hesitant in sending their kids to the sessions, when they heard about the topics. This used to be very demoralising for Mona and Purvi, who were just trying to create their own space. But, right things happened at right time for Sahas. They were able to enter into right collaborations with different organisation. Sahas got in touch with Chhoti si Khushi, an NGO based out of Dwarka, which was working on the educational needs of children from slum communities.
It was through such collaborations, Sahas started upping the ante and catering to more numbers. Mona sees collaboration as the right approach to expand Sahas’ reach. She says, “There are so many good individuals and organisations who care for a better society. All we need is to have shared objectives for which everybody is working together.” She remembers an incident, where Seema, founder of Chhoti si Asha, was attending the session on menstruation. When she learned that there are organisations working on low cost sanitary napkins, the very next day, she visited Goonj (an organisation working on menstrual hygiene) and brought some samples for her girls. Such small yet powerful incidents motivate Mona and Purvi to continue with full vigour. Sahas’s long term plan is to create a society, where everybody is open to discuss about the gender issues without any prejudices. A society which has safe and secure spaces for our children, a society which is devoid of any kind of gender violence. This is not going to be an easy task, as it takes generations to change mindsets. But, as Purvi says, ‘If not now, when? If not us, who?’ Her words resonate with that of Gauri, “Bhaiya, now when I understand about my own body, I feel I am ready to fight for it”.
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