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Empowering rural Gujarat girls: Themes - body, autonomy, expression, choice, desire

By Sanjay Dave 

'Mari Patang Mari Dheel’ was a transformative initiative to empower girls from Patadi and Mahisagar districts of Gujarat – centred around the themes of body, autonomy, expression, choice and desire intersected with their participation in the digital world. The initiative aimed at creating a celebratory spirit by engaging and inspiring young girls through experiential activities and perspective-building sessions. The goal was to create a safe and supportive environment where girls could explore their identities, gain a sense of agency, and develop a deeper understanding of critical issues related to their well-being and rights.
The three days of the event 19th – 21st December 2023 brought the girls together to participate in a variety of interesting sessions at Neembadi Learning Pathways, Sanand taluka, Ahmedabad district, Gujarat.

Theme: Expressing the Self: Choices and Desires

Session: Why Our Choice Matters? Expression Of Gender

The idea of choice was introduced by asking girls to introduce themselves through a unique movement and sound. It helped them dwell on important questions such as: Do we know ourselves? What do we like and dislike about ourselves? The session helped them understand that choice is a definitive aspect of our interaction with people, relationships, aspirations. Exercising choice in spaces of interaction like markets, play grounds or even a family kitchen is essential. However, the understanding of choice underlies the idea of safety that no longer remains the same for each girl. Here, the dynamics of the space the girls engage with, and their choice to engage with determines the idea of desire and safety. Hence, imagining how we want to shape these spaces is an essential quality of active choice making.

Session: Women’s Health: Burnout, Wellbeing and Care

The session began with the idea of self? What does it mean to be a girl? The responses highlighted that the girls learnt about their gender through restrictions and abuse arising from societal norms and rules such as restrictions on clothing, care and house work as primary duty, schooling, forced marriage, girl child is often considered a curse, girls should not go out at night, etc. were shared by the girls. A reflection about how girls feel about their situation revealed extreme emotions of anger, frustration, feeling like running away, sadness etc.

Session: Sexual Violence in Public Spaces

Harassment (mainly sexual) is a rampant issue faced by girls. In cities there is some focus however in rural public spaces the harassment faced by girls is a silent pandemic that the burden of which girls and women suffer in silence. At a session on public space sexual violence attended by about 52 girls, 100 percent admitted to facing sexual harassment. Most maintained a strategic silence, as they fear being blamed or stopped from going out if they were to inform families. Very few took help from parents, teachers, or aunt. Very few confronted the abuser as either were scared or wanted to avoid a fight.it was heartening to note that in cases where girls confronted the harasser they not only could shame and scare the harasser but also felt stronger and more confident after that.

Session: Personal History, Trauma, Desire

As part of this session, the girls build a story of an abandoned house that has gone through a traumatic event. The story involved a response to 3 questions; a) who lived there? b) what was the traumatic event? c) Where did the residents go after facing the traumatic events? The stories pointed towards the diversity of interpretations and experiences of trauma that the girls are exposed to. The girls had first-hand experience of the kind of shame, guilt and humiliation that families go through when their girls elope with a loved one. They also articulated how families become extremely vulnerable post a medical crisis and a consequent financial crisis because of which they are forced to sell all their resources and leave their home in search of new prospects in life.

Theme: Body and Autonomy

Session: Consent and abuse

The session essentially attempted to enfold conversations around sex, intimacy and consent, and how the lack of it transcends into different kinds of violence faced on an everyday basis, across institutions like family, marriage and health. While the topic of intimacy, love, and desire brought giggles in the faces of the 27 young girls as they acknowledge them as need, drawing boundaries and navigating the greyness in romantic relationships to understand the fine line between projected love and abuse became essential. Here, the girls were able to locate where lies the power, and how does the powerless (in this case being them) suffer, that is, giving into the excuses of partner to indulge in sex for the fear of violence, breakup and/or exclusion.
Almost all the girls were glad to have a space to talk about the 'hush-hush' topics that they seldom get to share with even their own friends.

Session: Digital media Safety and Security: Why phones are important, why we resist giving phones to girls and how that impacts them

The norms and rules that govern the real life of the girls are extended to the reel life as they take new forms, such as, the restrictions from accessing social media, criteria for having a certain display picture on WhatsApp to sharing of passwords with family members as an act of surveillance in the name of trust. The mapping of these norms became a segway to understanding the technical aspects in protecting ourselves and maintaining our privacy became a central learning for the girls.
While not all of them have access to personal smart phones, they have enough experience from their environment to understand the precautions of engaging in the internet web. However, it is not mere precautionary measure but also their entitlement to access this knowledge pool.

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