Finding Her Voice

Article Date

04 October 2010

Article Author

By Gillian Gaynair

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Prachi and older brother Dhiraj say they get along much better since participating in a school-based ICRW program that works with boys and girls to promote gender equality.

Prachi Chavan, 12, and her 14-year-old brother Dhiraj, in their home in Ghatla, a slum community in eastern Mumbai.

MUMBAI, India – It’s “hobby day” at Govandi Station Municipal School in Ghatla, a slum community in an eastern Mumbai suburb. The school’s entrance is a field of dirt, where boys playfully try to tip a cow in one corner and where women and children nearby pick through trash heaped in bins.

Even though it’s vacation time, the school remains open to students for a few hours each morning. Kids like 12-year-old Prachi Chavan and her 14-year-old brother, Dhiraj, come here to play dodge ball, cricket and other games. It’s only 8:30 a.m. and boys and girls – along with some teachers and the Chavan children’s father – gather in a concrete space in the back of the school.

Prachi grabs a cricket bat and takes her place in the imaginary cricket field. She bends at her waist, raises the bat and smiles wide, releasing deep dimples in both cheeks.

Pow! Prachi strikes the ball. “Ground shot!” her dad cries out as others scurry to scoop up the ball.

Later, it’s Dhiraj’s turn. His little sister cheers him on. After a few more swings from Dhiraj and others, Prachi calls out “Dada! Dada! Chalna!” Brother, brother, let’s go!

Dhiraj Chavan gears up to bat during a school yard cricket game.

A couple of years ago, Prachi and Dhiraj never would have played together. Nor did she call him “Dada” in public. Dhiraj told her not to; it wasn’t cool to associate with his sister. And they didn’t talk much at home. But that and much more has changed since the two participated in the International Center for Research on Women’s (ICRW) Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS) program.

GEMS begins in the sixth grade and works for two years with boys and girls in 45 Mumbai-area public schools. The program also takes place in Kota and Goa.

The effort champions equal relationships between girls and boys, dissects social norms that tend to define men’s and women’s roles in India, and addresses different forms of violence and how to intervene. GEMS students, who are between 12 and 14, also learn how and why their bodies change during puberty. And they talk about what makes for healthy relationships as well as how to prevent HIV.

They’re all serious topics. But they’re tackled in a fun way, though extra-curricular activities, role-playing and games lead by adult facilitators from the Committee of Resource Organizations for Literacy (CORO) and Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), ICRW’s local partners in the program.

Innovative approach

GEMS Booklet
The GEMS Diary is a colorful, interactive workbook that teaches students about social norms, qualities of a healthy friendship and how to stop violence.

It’s an unconventional approach in a deliberately-chosen setting – the school system.

“In a deeply gender-divided society like India, girls and boys are segregated from early on in their lives. Schools validate this by limiting how and where boys and girls interact,” says Pranita Achyut, an ICRW specialist in poverty, gender and HIV/AIDS who oversees the implementation of GEMS. “This kind of segregation only stands to limit boys’ and girls’ understanding of each other. We think it’s critical to challenge these practices within the school system, where children learn to socialize.”

Key to this has been facilitators’ effort to create an environment of trust and acceptance within the classroom.

“It’s highly unusual for discussions with children at school to touch on their life experiences, but GEMS gives them a safe place to raise even the most intimate questions,” Pallavi Palav, CORO’s project coordinator for GEMS. “And it has been like opening a floodgate. Girls and boys challenge each other and ask questions they’ve never discussed in the presence of teachers or other authority figures.”

GEMS in the Classroom
GEMS gives students a safe place to raise even the most intimate questions.

ICRW is already seeing results. Before starting the project in 2008, ICRW, CORO and TISS surveyed some 2,800 students on their attitudes about violence as well as the roles of men and women, among other topics. A follow-up survey this year shows that many students’ support of traditional gender roles – such as the notion that women shouldn’t work – shifted during the course of the program, particularly among girls.

Results also show that students were better able to recognize different forms of violence after they participated in GEMS.

“Overall, findings suggest that programs like GEMS can play a vital role in changing deeply-rooted social norms within India’s rapidly changing society,” Achyut says. “The findings also suggest that schools are perhaps the most appropriate places to intervene for a lasting impact.”

However, experts say there still are many students whose views about boys’ and girls’ roles in society haven’t altered since they became involved in GEMS. “Learning to be sensitive to the issues GEMS challenges children to think about isn’t easy; it’s a journey,” Achyut says. “It’s a big issue, and what we’re doing may not be a complete answer, but it may well be the first step.”

ICRW will release its complete findings in early 2011. In the 2010-11 academic year, ICRW and its local partners will focus on institutionalizing GEMS by involving teachers on a deeper level and, in some areas, the community, too. In two of these communities, ICRW also will aim to engage fathers of girls on issues related to their daughters’ confidence and opportunities.

A family benefits

Dipti, mother
Dipti Chavan, Prachi and Dhiraj’s mother, says her children are more responsible and respectful since being a part of the GEMS program.

For GEMS students such as Prachi, what most resonated with her were discussions about relationships – why it’s important to be respectful, understanding and to share feelings. She credits the program with bettering her relationship with her brother – they now talk to each other and play together. She says she talks to him about how much he’s changed and asks him why. Dhiraj tells her they have to live out what they’re learning through GEMS.

“We’re much closer,” she says of her brother. “I wish that this relationship remains always like this…I really feel so free from all the restrictions.”

On this day, Prachi’s mother begins preparing small plates of poha, a traditional breakfast dish of flattened rice, potatoes and spices when everyone returns from the school playground. As she dishes up the meal, Dipti says that her children are more proactive, responsible and respectful since participating in GEMS.

“We are shocked to see the change,” she says. “I don’t have to reinstruct these two kids. They’re doing on their own.”

Now, Dhiraj helps Prachi with household chores. They study together. And they’ve learned how to negotiate the things that once caused them to bump heads – like how to share TV time.

But for Prachi, a more subtle change seems to have occurred: She’s found her voice.

Since participating in GEMS, Prachi Chavan now believes girls can do anything boys can, including pursue an education and work outside the home.

“I used to think that only boys can study, they can grow. They get the respect,” Prachi says as she sits on the floor, legs crossed. “There’s nothing for girls; they have to be home and take care of household chores.”

But through GEMS, Prachi explains that she realized her outlook was based solely on the relationships between women and men she sees in society. She’s discovered that doesn’t necessarily have to be her reality.

“It’s a girl’s right to get an education. She can do anything boys can do,” Prachi says. “She can get an education, get a good job, work outside and take care of her parents. Why should girls be restricted only to household work?”

Prachi’s tone is emphatic. Confident.

As she listens, Dipti’s eyes pool with tears. It’s the first time she’s ever heard her daughter speak like this.

She smiles.

Gillian Gaynair is ICRW’s writer/editor.