My name is Madhulika and I am a Master Trainer for CorStone’s Girls First program in Bihar, India. As a Master Trainer, I have very close relationships with the girls in the program. Today, I want to tell you about one of the schools where Girls First was recently implemented in rural Patna district.
When I first visited this school about a year ago, I found the girls to be similar to girls in many other area schools: they were shy and unable to take any action for their own benefit. They were “good girls” based on Bihar’s traditional gender norms: they were quiet and obedient, and seemed to have very few beliefs in their own abilities to solve any of the problems they might be facing.
But as they attended the Girls First training, I saw a clear change as they began to gain confidence and self-esteem. Soon, progressing from sessions on how to identify and use their strengths to sessions on how to handle difficult feelings, they began to tackle problem solving.
One day as I observed a problem solving session during a routine monitoring visit, the pair of local women whom I had trained to facilitate the group sat in a circle with these girls. The facilitators asked for a volunteer to raise any problem that she was facing in front of the group. Then, as they told the girls, the whole group would try to help her to solve it.
Suddenly, so many questions came to these girls’ faces. There was a murmur around the room, and a few girls spoke up, eager to participate. These girls said that they were facing a serious problem because they were not able to get clean drinking water at their school. Drinking water at many Bihar schools comes from water tanks operated by hand pumps. During their lunch break, some students (mostly boys, they said) would wash their hands in the water tank, contaminating the water and making it unsafe to drink for all of the other students. Other boys liked to break the hand pump, so water was often totally unavailable. The school management tried to repair the pump regularly, but the boys tampered with the pump so often that the girls never knew when they would have access to clean water.
Though many girls had tried to come up with solutions previously, like going back to their homes for water during lunch break, or bringing water bottles, these solutions often ended up making them miss class or having inadequate water to last the whole school day. In rural Bihar, where temperatures often hover between 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit, schools are generally open to the elements. Classrooms usually have no glass on the windows, and I’ve never seen a school with a fan or air conditioner in a classroom. Not having access to clean water during the day can lead to serious dehydration and even heat stroke.
With the facilitators guiding the session, everyone in the group was eager to sort out this problem. The girls started thinking of solutions and the group became very lively, with girls throwing out many different ideas. In the end, they created a three-step plan that they all agreed was safe, possible, and just might work.
The first step was to form a united front and talk to the principal to get the water pump cleaned and fixed one last time. Then, they planned that they would take care of the pump by banding together with other girls at their school to make sure they stopped any boys who tried to cause trouble with the water supply. The final step was to put a lock on the water tank so that no boys could ever wash their hands in that tank again.
The girls were excited, vocal, and clear about the steps that they would take. It was a far cry from the quiet, subservient set of girls I had observed before their sessions started. Girls seemed to suddenly know that they could work together to solve their problems. There was a determined, confident, and powerful energy in the room.
I left that session feeling very proud of them, but of course I was not sure what the outcome would be. I knew that there were many obstacles that could arise in following this plan; not the least of which being that they would need to overcome the ever-present stereotype that girls are supposed to be meek, obedient, and just sit and wait for others to take care of them.
But, a few days later, I found out that that some of the girls had gotten together, visited their principal, and persuaded him to fix the tank so that they could start on their plan. They had also talked with other girls at their school, forming a sort of informal water protection coalition.
On my next visit to the school, I found a lock on the water tank and absolutely no boys hanging around or tinkering with the pump. Even the place where the water tank was situated was much cleaner then I had ever seen it! It was clear that the girls at this school had been able to make their own decisions and had acted assertively and without hesitation.
To this day, the water remains clean at this Bihar middle school, helping to keep the children of that community healthy. And it is all thanks to these Girls First girls who found out that they didn’t have to wait around for others to solve their problems – they could confidently solve problems for themselves and for others in their communities!