The Jeevika Development Society found an innovative way to celebrate the National Girl Child Day. The organization works with adolescent girls in villages in the South 24 Parganas to make them aware of their basic rights, particularly of their right over their own bodies. On January 24, 2013, at the Rabindra Sadan Prangan, Jeevika organized an event — Anonde Konyakal — that was primarily aimed at giving the girls some respite from their tedious daily lives and an opportunity to enjoy themselves freely and uninhibitedly. Thus, it celebrated girlhood.
The event was made up of workshops and performances. Colourful balloons, paper-strips, posters and the general jolly mood made the space a look a bit like a fair ground. But the games being played at the workshops revealed, all the more starkly, how burdensome girlhood actually was. The participants — mostly young girls aged 13-18 and some young boys — seemed a bit taciturn at the start of the workshops. But they soon became quite involved and spontaneous in their expressions. In one corner some children danced with balloons; this was soon designed into a composed performance by a choreographer. Next to them, other children smeared paint on a huge canvas; some of the patterns that emerged expressed a strange longing. On the other side, some more children debated and discussed how they ought to recognize, express and evaluate their own desires and opinions, and those of others. It was, indeed, quite something to see so many children listening, speaking and trying to communicate — at once, yet separately. It was also a bit disheartening to see how some of these young girls behaved like birds suddenly let out of the cage after years of confinement.
In one of the workshops, the children were asked to play a queer game. Two of them would build a barrier of sorts, and another two would try to walk through it. The girls, trying to hold each other back, giggled endlessly. But it got more interesting when the boys joined in. The two boys participating in this game were both frail creatures; virtually no match for the stout girls. Yet, the girls lost every time. I noticed that this was because the girls were concentrating more on protecting their bodies from being touched than on exerting force to hold their opponents back.
In another workshop, which, Jeevika said, taught life skills, girls were being taught how to say no to lewd advances. From the exchanges, some very common yet pertinent points emerged. For example, as the conductor of this workshop explained, when a man is trying to touch a girl in a sexually provocative way on a bus — and provided that the move is unwelcome to the girl — the best way to stop him is by saying out loud what exactly he is up to and asking him not to do it. This should embarrass the man and not the girl. The other point being discussed was how exactly a girl is to know her own mind — how to form a firm opinion, firm likes or dislikes.
I had the most remarkable experience in another workshop. Here, the conductor drew a female body, marked out the parts, and asked the participants to list the uses of each part. This exercise was meant to make the girls aware of their own bodies, and therefore show them the way to control their own bodies. The children, giggling most of the time, suddenly fell silent when they learnt what they were being asked to do. For a while they whispered urgently and scribbled furiously on white sheets of paper. Then, their answers were read out. I had expected to be surprised and waited with bated breath; but I wasn’t. Every child had tried his or her best to avoid mentioning the sex organs.
I was talking to one of the representatives of Jeevika. She was telling me how the organization conducted its workshops in village schools. I couldn’t help asking her why they hadn’t introduced sex education directly. “The schools in which we work won’t even allow us to mention the word ‘love’. They have told us to speak only about the dangers of child marriage,” she said. “Even then, we sometimes try to have covert discussions about romance and sex since the principal cause behind the girls dropping out or eloping is their confusion around man-woman relationships. Most of the times, they run away with classmates in order to avoid a forced marriage. So, these issues are crucial. But there is tremendous repression in their homes and at school. They have allowed us to talk to the girls, but if a girl speaks to us about her body, she is bound to face severe punishment. We try our best, but what can we do? Some of the girls sneak in with questions at the end of our classes. One of them had asked me, “Didi, what should I do if I get raped?”