My name is Aditi, and I am a Master Trainer in the Girls First program in Bihar, India. I would like to tell you a story of one of the amazing things I have witnessed during my time with Girls First: girls standing up to gender discrimination.
Girls First is a program for 7-8 grade girls that works from the ‘inside out’. Girls in the program learn about their own strengths, goals and emotions, and then move to learning communication skills and problem solving techniques. The program is facilitated by women in the local rural communities, some of them with only a 10th grade education.
While often tentative and lacking in confidence at the beginning of the program, by the time girls get to the sessions on problem solving, they become very vibrant and enthusiastic. As soon as they go through these sessions, it’s like I see light bulbs go off in their heads — hey, we could actually solve our own problems! — they seem to be thinking for the very first time.
Recently, during one of the sessions I observed, the girls all agreed that there was a major problem they all wanted to tackle: harassment, or what we call ‘eve teasing’ of girls and women. They said, “Eve teasing is very common in this society. And it is the girls who are blamed for it!” They decided that they wanted to put on a play for their school and the surrounding community based on examples they had discussed in group. The play would be about a girl who is teased by boys on the way to school and at school, who is then blamed for the boys’ behavior and forced by her parents to be married and discontinue her schooling. They said that they wanted to express their pain through this play to send a message to their society.
They were very excited.
When the girls went to their school principal to seek permission to do the play, she would not allow it. The principal said, “These are very strong messages and are not accepted in our society. If we put on a play, many important people of the community will come, and they may not like this. Since these people are brought up with the mind-set that men are always right, girls should limit their activities and not challenge them.”
At first the girls were very disappointed. But they brought it back to their group during the next session, having learned that sharing problems can often help to solve them. They told the group facilitators about what had happened and asked if they could help them, as they thought that this might help to convince the principal.
Soon, the girls were back in front of the principal, making their case again, this time with their facilitators accompanying them. This time, the girls and facilitators together confidently talked to the principal by explaining the great need to change their society. They explained that not only do their peers need to understand the problems and challenges they have to face in their day to day lives, but also parents and other family members as well. The principal was still hesitant, but the girls wouldn’t give up. They asked one of the CorStone Master Trainers to talk to the principal on their behalf. Finally, the principal gave permission to the girls to do the play.
The girls were so excited but so nervous! For the first time, they were going to put on a play, and many renowned people from the local village would attend the function. They all were very excited and worked hard to prepare.
The day of the performance, it was an atmosphere of great importance. There was a flag hoisting ceremony and speeches were made by the principal, teachers, and other dignitaries from the community.
When the girls saw all of the people sitting next to the stage, they became even more nervous. But, they were committed to the cause. One of the girls said to the others, “Do not think about your worries now — we have decided to perform this play and you know we have struggled a lot to be allowed to do it. Let us perform now!” All of the girls started laughing, saying amongst themselves, “Yes. You’re right! All we need to do now is focus on performing.”
The play began, and the girls did well. They had moments where they seemed nervous or forgot the dialogue, but they were so happy that they were performing this important play. Their faces shone with happiness.
Afterwards, I will not lie: there were those who were supportive of the message of the play and those who were not supportive. But the girls clearly felt so strong. They knew that discussing this issue was not very acceptable in their society, but they had decided to do it anyway, and they felt so empowered to have spoken out about this problem.
It was clear that those who were supportive were energized as well. One of the teachers came to the CorStone staff to appreciate our work. She said that she had noticed major changes among the Girls First girls who were in her classes.
She said, “Earlier, girls were not so confident. When I asked them to read their lessons aloud in front of the class, they used to hesitate, maybe because of lack of knowledge or some kind of fear within them. But now I can feel the effect of this program. They now come to me directly to clear up any problems they are having in understanding the material. It is clear that we cannot easily change these girls’ community environment, but we can empower them so that they can face their society and their family members, too. And this program is giving them a way.”
We were so proud of them, and it was clear that the girls were so proud of their work, too. We looked around and saw some of the other girls at the school and from the community who were not part of the program coming up to the Girls First girls and congratulating them. So many of them had appreciated the play, and a number of them excitedly asked how the girls got the idea to do it. The girls energetically explained to these other girls about Girls First, sharing how they had learned about their strengths, their goals, their feelings, and how to solve problems.
It was clear that so many eyes had been opened to the problem of harassment and eve teasing that day, and that these girls had made it happen with great persistence, poise and courage.
Congratulations Girls First girls on a wonderful performance!