One brick at a time

Article Date

18 May 2015

Article Author

Neha Sethi

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

One sultry summer afternoon in July last year, a group of young men and women from the Magic Bus India Foundation went through grueling rounds of group discussions and interviews at ICRW’s Asia Regional Office in Delhi to become trainers for the PAGE program, a program designed to empower adolescent girls in East and South Delhi.

The room was packed, with doors opening and closing frequently. At the end of the day, fourteen young people emerged successful, selected to lead the implementation of the program and becoming integral mentors who empower adolescent girls and build their employability skills.

“It was difficult to imagine in the beginning how our role would evolve and how the project would impact girls,” said Gaurang, one of our frontline trainers, “what we knew was that we will be going to schools and conducting sessions on gender with girls.”

IMG_2044To kick off the program, we organized a round of foundational training for the youth mentors, which were geared toward helping them understand and simultaneously unpacking their own existing notions around the concepts of sex, gender, sexuality, power and patriarchy. “Patriarchy is like a huge wall,” said Anand Pawar, the lead facilitator, “it can be taken down one brick at a time and often, we spend a whole lifetime dedicating ourselves to removing that one brick.” The first training was an essential step in ensuring that the mentors understood the impact of gender and power in their own lives and the relational dynamics in which they live, so that they could be better prepared to facilitate sessions with girls.

The next step was finalizing the first PAGE module on Self, which sought to explain the above concepts to girls and how they are linked with one’s identity at a simple yet critical level. The mentors were then taken through another round of training to sharpen their facilitation skills. With permission from schools secured and classes assigned amongst the mentors, the roll-out of the program began, giving the mentors the opportunity to interact with the girls and take them through a series of sessions challenging gendered expectations and empowering them with tools to succeed.

Going through the training and subsequently facilitating sessions with girls was a process of learning and unlearning. “At the time of the first training, my knowledge on concepts such as gender, power, patriarchy and sexuality was close to zero. In fact, despite being 24 years-old, I did not fully understand sexual intercourse,” Rajni, a trainer, admitted candidly. “When we were conducting the first sessions on Sex and Gender with girls in classes 9 and 11, many, even as old as 17, did not know the word ‘yoni’ (vagina in Hindi),” Shabana, an East Delhi trainer elaborated.

“Right from that session itself, I encouraged them to say the proper words for their body parts, including penis and vagina,” she added.

Voices of other trainers echoed similar sentiments. This hardly comes as a surprise, given the silence and squeamishness around sex and sexuality in India. It is palpable as much in the everyday conversations (or lack thereof), as it is at a politico-legal level. Indeed, it was only last year that the Union Health Minister stirred up a storm when he proclaimed that sex education should be banned in schools. In such an atmosphere, the relevance and need for a program like PAGE is further amplified.

The trainers have also highlighted how through the PAGE sessions, they are able to understand and communicate to the girls the linkages between gender, power and patriarchy; this is not only at a conceptual level, but also at a practical one, in terms of both the obvious and subtle manifestations of how gender and power play out in their lives.

IMG-20150508-WA0021Often, trainers use their own personal stories to inspire the girls in the sessions to find their voice and start using it, to begin experimenting with resistance. Rajni, for instance, got married soon after the PAGE program completed its first module. She narrated how the confidence and skills she gained after being a PAGE facilitator helped her speak up within her new family: “Women in the family I have married into are not supposed to speak in the presence of male members, and must cover their heads at all times. I raised my voice against this and challenged the setup. There was resistance initially, no doubt. In fact once I was even asked to leave the house. But I persisted and the result was positive. Now my in-laws are supportive of me.”

The potential of the PAGE program to slowly transform not only girls’ lives, but also impact others, is unraveling.

These aspects make it clear that PAGE is playing an important role within the communities, but the program does face challenges. Trainers must grapple with untimely holidays in schools or lack of support from the administration or teachers in securing designated time for PAGE – problems that push back the implementation of the program.

And while they have to be incredibly flexible, dealing with myriad challenges along the way, they also must be on the frontlines of helping girls overcome their own challenges. As such, they are often the first and critical point of psycho-social support for girls. “Initially, I would face certain issues being a male facilitator in a girls’ school,” related Gaurang, “However, eventually, after months of persistence, we were able to create a safe space in the form of the PAGE program sessions for the girls, and now they are comfortable sharing with me. In fact, just recently two girls from the sessions I take, who had initially shared that they face a lot of tension balancing the pressure of household chores and school life, came up to me saying that they are gradually speaking out in front of their families and questioning gender norms; so much so that their families have now begun to divide household tasks among male members as well! It was at this moment that I understood the value of a program like PAGE – how it helps girls to share their experiences, to question the discrimination they face and try to change it.”

IMG-20150508-WA0023Over the past year, throughout the process of implementing the PAGE program, we have encountered a series of highs and lows. We have enjoyed this process, because we have learned. We have learned that the journey to empowerment can be an arduous one, yet in only 45 minutes we can begin to disentangle patriarchy for girls. We have learned that it takes just fourteen people to begin the movement for change and to mobilize communities. We have learned that a program to empower girls actually impacts the lives of all those it touches along the way.

With the first module on Self successfully completed, PAGE is now gearing up for the subsequent modules. The upcoming modules on Self-Efficacy, Resourcefulness and Employability, which form a decisive link between our aims of empowerment and employability, make PAGE unique in its approach to equip girls with the skills and capacity to map their own trajectory of empowerment.

As the project grows from its infancy, so too does our PAGE team. We look back at the months past and feel an immense sense of pride in how far we have come in our endeavor, yet aware and determined about the many bricks we have yet to dismantle.

Planning Ahead for Girls’ Empowerment and Employability (PAGE) is a MacArthur Foundation-funded project targeting adolescent girls between 15 and 17 years-old. PAGE is currently in the pilot phase in four girls’ government schools across low-income communities in East and South Delhi. ICRW is partnering with Magic Bus India Foundation for the implementation of the program. The PAGE trainers have been selected from a pool of talented youth mentors that run Magic Bus’ Sports for Development (S4D) program.