2015: Rohanewadi, a typical, drought-prone Marathwada village in Jalna district. A village where customs and traditions are followed diligently. Having a male child and the assurance that the family tree will flourish is everyone’s dream. Another tradition is worrying about a daughter’s marriage, right from the time she’s born. Although dowry giving and taking is legally a crime, the custom thrives here. If the opportunity arises to marry off a daughter with a lower dowry than would be expected ordinarily, then the parents rarely give any consideration to her age and eagerly grab the ‘bargain’. The sex ratio in Jalna district is 937 girls for every 1000 boys.
Being married before the legal age of 18 is a common occurrence here. Yet a young girl from this village single-handedly shattered all plans to marry her off! Komal, who comes from a poor family, was studying in the 8th standard when some relatives told her parents of a “good match”. “There is no guarantee that we will be able to fix a marriage easily later if we delay, so why don’t we meet the family?” said her parents. They invited the prospective groom and his family to ‘see’ the girl. They forced Komal into a saree and made her stand before these guests, with a tray holding cups of tea for them.
At first the poor girl was ill at ease. But after the initial pleasantries, when the would-be-groom asked her about herself, she found her courage. She said, “My name is Komal and I don’t want to marry you.” The elders tried to silence her but Komal was beyond paying heed. She carried on speaking. “I am still young, I’m in Std 8 and I want to study more. I don’t want to get married so early. They have taught us in ‘Meena-Raju Manch’ in school that if a girl is married at such a young age it affects not only her health but also that of her children. I have explained this to my parents. But they don’t listen to me! Please hear me, I just don’t want to get married right now!”
Fortunately those who had come to ‘see’ Komal realised that they were making a mistake, and so did her parents. Today Komal is in the 9th standard, and she dreams of becoming a teacher. And it is not only Komal who has become brave, her friends too have changed. They are no longer shy and quiet, nor are they afraid to speak up.
One of Komal’s classmates used to travel to school from a nearby village. She had to walk and take a bus to reach school. During this journey, a boy from the same school began harassing her. The girl grew too scared to travel to school anymore. But Komal and her friends comforted her. They said they would teach that boy a lesson. So they began accompanying her to the bus stop, and one day they caught the boy who was harassing her. They demanded to know his name and address and informed the teachers at school about him. The teachers then called his parents to school and presented the facts to them. In this way Komal and her friends made sure that the girl stayed in school and did not have to drop out.
For readers who may be wondering what the ‘Meena-Raju Manch’ mentioned earlier is all about – it is a programme that was launched in 2012, in Maharashtra government secondary schools. The programme helps create awareness about issues like gender equality, right to education, sexual abuse. Today, with the help of UNICEF, along with CORO, a Mumbai based organisation, the Meena-Raju Manch is part of some 23,000 schools across the state. It aims to bring about behavioural change in students and in teachers, with respect to gender equality, so that this does not remain just a paper phrase. To accomplish this, it has been necessary to start with the mindset of the teachers themselves.
Onaswi Deshpande, a “sugamkarta” (co-ordinator) in Bhalwadi school of Satara district, gives the following example to shows how the Meena-Raju Manch has made an impact beyond the curriculum or text books. Her school, which falls under the Maan taluka, has a Meena-Raju Manch that conducts sessions with schoolchildren that focus on child rights and include modules such as ‘Oath Against Abuse’, and ‘My Body My Right’. As a sugamkarta, Onaswi Deshpande has conducted many such sessions.
‘My Body My Right’ tries to empower children to say no to sexual abuse. Students are asked to mark body parts which they would not want others to touch, on a diagram in red and other parts in green. At the same time, they are also taught to know their bodies. The programme helps children understand that some parts of our bodies are private and we may not like anyone else to touch them, with the possible exception of our mothers. So if someone does try to touch those parts you can refuse to allow it, and if the person seems likely to harm you, you can draw the the attention of others around by screaming or making a noise. The programme encourages children who are abused to confide in someone they trust, perhaps a teacher, but to not suffer in silence.
Deshpande ‘Madam’ had run the entire programme with its various sessions in Bhalwadi. She had neatly filed the students’ writings, group discussion points, as well as related photographs. But suddenly, in May 2016, there was unseasonal rain and the school building was badly damaged. Its roof broke, and the files and photos were ruined. Teachers and students were anguished to see the school in this condition.
Some days later, when officials came to check on the progress of the Meena-Raju Manch, ‘Madam’ had nothing to show them. But the children came forward and said that they remembered everything she had taught them, and the officials could ask them any question.
Onaswi Deshpande was very happy when a girl named Akkatai was able to describe the idea underlying ‘My Body My Right’. She said, “I alone have a right over my body. I will not allow anyone else to touch it and will resist anyone who tries to harass me.” The officials were impressed. Other students, too, confidently answered the questions posed to them.
As they left, the officials observed, “Even though no paperwork is available, the students’ confidence is proof of your teaching.”
The Meena-Raju Manch is bringing about much change. Such programmes are helping to increase self-confidence and self-awareness among adolescent girls and boys.
(Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect the identities of the children)
Blog: Snehal Bansode-Sheludkar, based on the narratives given by activists Pallavi Palav and Nitin Kamble of CORO
Translation & editing: samata.shiksha team