“Nacha beda bave neenu hange hogaakka; Odi hogi nodi baru enen kalsara”, (do not be shy girl, step out and see what’s happening outside your world). When Roopa, Pakkamma, Anjali, and Sangeetha chorused on the stage, it seemed like their inner voices were scuttling and racing past every spile of centuries-old societal and cultural suppression. Their gleaming eyes and glowing faces, heads high and shoulders wide had such a bearing that they seemed ready to take on any hurdle, to sprint past their quest and attempt in creating an identity for themselves.

The intrepid demeanor with which they concluded the song and stepped down from the small stage set in the well-ventilated auditorium of the Gnanabandhu Residential School in Koppal, was a testimony to the metamorphosis they were undergoing during the past 18 months, under the tutelage of the Sphoorthi Project.

The inner courtyard of the school was bustling with unbound energy and positivity when a group of 88 girls in the age group of 13 to 16 lighted the flame torches of their dreams; the first batch to arrive for a three-day residential leadership camp organized by the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust as part of the Sphoorthi Project, in association with the Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiative.

An hour before this splendid sight, when the girls arrived at the school and lined up in front of the school gate, they were given two choices to kick-off the leadership camp. They got to choose between an easy and insipid route that led them to the school premises and an intriguing and fun-filled route that would wane out all their inhibitions and fears.

Akkammma Devi, the field officer, is a little flustered and eager when two frail girls get intimidated and hesitate from entering the mouth of the gorilla figure at the entrance of the tougher path. She prods and encourages them to take on the challenge. After a bit of coaxing when they decide to walk towards the mouth of the gorilla, they are intimidated by the ogreish roar of the gorilla who challenges the girls to be bold and enter a world of uncertainties filled with danger and suspense. An excellent message to take home, that life is not all that easy. But if you muster the courage and take on the challenges one by one, it is definitely going to be rewarding in the end.

Akkamma Devi and the rest of the volunteers are all smiles when the girls finally decide to step into the mouth of the gorilla figure. After going through a couple of hurdles such as the crazy tunnel and the number hopscotch, the girls seem geared up to welcome the next two days with all enthusiasm.

The warm-up session, which was filled with fun galore, was just an ice breaker for the girls to mingle with the rest of the crowd. The carefully crafted leadership camp kept the girls on their toes for the following two days, as they got exposed to the nuances of leadership and the immense possibilities ahead of them. The group was divided under four facilitators, and each group in turn was split into four subgroups. One facilitator, along with one community organizer, attended to around 20 to 25 girls, thereby being able to give them individual attention. The first activity that involved grouping up based on animal voices was indeed an interesting one, which sent out the message that language or creed should not be a barrier for any kind of friendship and acquaintance. What is of utmost importance is the ability to mingle and carry forward the friendship under any circumstance.

Every activity, conducted in the form of a game, had an important message to take away, be it in relation to the society or the lives of the girls themselves. The various puzzles that were on display in the corridors of the school had serious messages to take home. Some of the pictures on display were cues for an activity or two that would bring out the prejudices borne within those tender hearts as a result of their upbringing and bondage to societal norms.

At the camp, they were allowed to, or rather encouraged to do everything and anything that they were prohibited from, be it climbing a tall tree to gather the fruits hung on it, or throwing a ball at a target to knock off the carefully stacked glasses. It was amazing to see how the shriveled-up minds cast off all creases and assumed personalities that truly represented who they were and what they had been bottling up. The effervescence of their free spirits gurgled in the morbid atmosphere and the sweltering heat. It gave each person gathered there the strength and will to go the extra mile to emboss life’s principles, as strong as ever.

With a strict routine of waking up at 5:30 and getting ready for a trek or a treasure hunt and going to bed by 10:30 after an enriching camp fire or a movie clip, the camp would not have been possible without the relentless efforts of the KHPT staff who ensured that every aspect was perfect. The sun burn marks and the perennial smiles worn by the community organizers had so much to tell about the dedication and passion with which the Sphoorthi Project was implemented. The girls were at so much ease with the community organizers, from their respective villages and vice versa that one would mistake them of belonging to the same family. This spoke volumes of the trust and faith the families had on the community organizers and of course the success of the Sphoorthi Project.

On one occasion, a couple of girls were hurrying for an activity, wherein they had to write about their experience at the camp on a large canvas hung high against a wall. One of the girls went straight up to a ladder followed by the rest who lent a helping hand to bring the ladder towards the canvas. They waited in turns to climb up the ladder and attest the canvas with their messages and signatures. It was heartening to see this sight because, a couple of minutes ago, they were playing a game ruthlessly and in a self-centered manner. The game was to protect balloons from being popped by the other groups and whoever retained the biggest balloon would be rewarded with Rs. 500/-. The first instinct of the girls was to pop others’ balloons as they did not want anyone to be rewarded, if they weren’t. In the end there was not a single balloon left. It was then that the Course Director conveyed the intention of this activity. He explained how the money could have been split among a single group or the entire classroom if they were united and did not pop each other’s balloons. The entire classroom went silent and into deep contemplation indicating that the message had gone down deep within. Therefore, they kept the interest of others ahead of theirs when it came to filling up the canvas with personal messages.

The 88 girls present in the school, were only a few among the 700 odd adolescent girl leaders selected to be role models from across the 51 villages in Koppal. Koppal ranks second in Karnataka for child marriage and infant mortality rates. It took the KHPT team a great deal of effort and planning to seep into the web of conventional beliefs and break the shackles to even convince the elders about the perils of child marriage and the importance of educating girls. The team spent countless hours attempting to convey the benefits of the peer role-model approach for empowering the girls and thereby the women, who would eventually be the foundation of the society. Apart from the role-model program for girls, there have been numerous awareness campaigns for adolescent boys and exposure visits for parents, to cities such as Mangalore and Mysore, to garner more support and strength.

The philosophy behind the peer role-model approach emerged out of the fact that children in the age group of 13 and 16 are greatly influenced by their peers. In the villages especially, they do not have any icons to look up to, and therefore pruning the most forthcoming adolescent girls and allowing them to lead the way by example, was the most effective way of culling child marriage and school drop-out rates and other perils prevailing in backward communities. This, in turn, led to healthier families and healthier societies.

In one of the open sessions, they narrated an incident where the role model girls’ community attempted to prevent one of their peers from being married at the age of 13. The marriage was halted thrice with the intervention of these young leaders. However, so strong was the opposition to this intervention that the to-be-bride was clandestinely taken to another village around midnight and nobody heard from her or her family since then. The conviction with which the girls took an oath stating that such an incident will never happen again and that they are willing to go any extent to stop such incidents from happening again, was indeed encouraging. A positive sign that at this age they are being equipped with the most important qualities of self-esteem and self-confidence. Although the results of this intervention were disheartening, what stands out here is the awareness and grit possessed by the girls as a result of their exposure to the perils of child marriage and their yearning to lead a better life by continuing their education.

It was motivating to see the girls unfurl their minds and shout out their dreams and the determination to achieve those dreams against all odds. Some of them dream of being a doctor, or a teacher or an engineer; while some of them wanted to be a police officer so that they could take the backing of a larger machinery to stop the injustice prevailing in the society.

At the end of the three-day camp and after making new friends and identifying their own strengths and weaknesses the girls were reluctant to go back to their homes. “Miss we don’t want to go back, it is so much fun”, they shouted in unison, when they were asked to keep their bags ready for departing as the next batch would arrive just about time this batch departed. But, Mohan Chandra, the Camp Director and Rajkumar, the District Program Coordinator, persuaded the girls by telling them that they have a larger responsibility at hand after getting back to their villages and that the onus of imparting all the learning and experience to their peers in the villages lies on them. They have to take this movement to the next level and transform it into a national movement. They listened attentively and were resolute. They took an oath to abide by the values and principles and got ready to go back home and start a new beginning.

By Sheena Lakshmi

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