Walking through a Kolkata slum dodging stray animals and debris, I’m aware of being watched. Hundreds of eyes follow my every move. Inscrutable eyes; I’m not certain if they are pleased or angry, but they are curious. I’m curious, too.
While preparing for this trip, I’d seen headlines about the violent attack of a young woman on a Delhi bus. In response, a storm of protests had erupted around India, with women demanding changes to the criminal code and culture. This was different – and it stayed in the international news for several weeks. Knowing that sponsored girls in India were negotiating the same troubled waters of violence and changing traditions, I wanted to know how they managed with such turbulence around them.
Caught in the middle
Even with these storms, Phirdous was calm. Before the Delhi case thrust the cause of India’s women on the map, this 16-year-old sponsored youth was changing her conservative community.
It started a few years ago. During a Youth Health Corps (YHC) session, Phirdous realized how little she understood about puberty. “All the [questions] related to girls I could answer; all related to boys I could not. That’s when I decided I had to take this training because the knowledge I could get would change my life.”
Unfortunately, her conservative community frowned on the training. Not only does YHC educate its members in reproductive biology and sexuality – taboo topics for a Muslim girl, its members share this knowledge. Meetings are also “mixed,” meaning boys and girls.
The potential for gossip was too much for her family. “It was a huge issue. Firstly, my grandmother said no that I couldn’t go. Then my aunt said no, I can’t go. I had to really, really convince them. So, I started asking them questions: ‘Do you know what happened to you growing up? You didn’t know, but now I’m getting a chance to learn.’
“Finally, my aunt said fine. But my grandmother refused to budge. She said it was a great responsibility – it was a huge responsibility – I can’t let you go and attend a mixed crowd meeting. But, finally she relented.”
Finding her voice
The YHC training changed Phirdous’ life completely. “In our families, girls are not taught very much. All priority, all attention is given to boys. So, it’s when we are aware, it’s only then that we can voice what we need. Our rights.”
This knowledge was crucial when Phirdous faced another challenge: saving herself from early marriage. Although she was asked to take a husband, thanks to YHC, Phirdous knew the dangers of marriage at 15. “There was pressure to get married. But knowing the disadvantages of child marriage, and getting married early, I was able to wiggle out of the situation.”
Her aunt adds, “You see parents who are really, really poor and they say, ‘The girl, she has to get married.’ But it is bad. It’s bad for the girl; it’s bad for the baby. Both the mom and the child suffer.
Phirdous’s grandmother catches my eye. Solemnly, she adds, “It is also important to pass the message down to friends.” Phirdous comforts her grandmother, replying, “Yes, I share my knowledge.” She has started a one-woman health education campaign in her school. “I taught them about the menstrual cycle and health and hygiene as a human right. I showed them a chart of the reproductive system and talked to them about it.”
In between lectures and activities, Phirdous also instructs girls on how to manage the inevitable pressure to marry. “There are lots of them who were asked to get married…but none of them are going to do it!”
The three women – Phirdous, her auntie and her grandmother – share a knowing look. I suddenly understand. Tucked away from the prying eyes of men, Phirdous and the women in her family are sharing the transformative power of education to rescue girls in their community from early marriage. The eyes outside may not know it, but life as a woman in India is changing.
Photos by David Nebel and Nivedita Moitra in Kolkata, India.
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