Sonal is a vibrant 15 year old girl with a passion for life who recently completed CorStone’s Children’s Resiliency Program for Girls in Bihar, India.
In this photograph, she stands in her school uniform in the government-run Sarvajanik High School in Surat, Gujarat. There, she is a 9th grade student. Sarvajanik High School is severely overcrowded and understaffed. For example, in Sonal’s class, there are 150 students and only one teacher.
I recently visited Sonal’s school with CorStone’s Executive Director, Steve Leventhal, where we hoped to learn more about the girls who participated in the CorStone program. On arrival at the school, we were greeted by a group of grinning girls. We then sat and talked privately with Sonal.
A ‘Dalit’ untouchable gains self confidence and finds her inner resilience. #Resilience #GirlsFirst Click To Tweet
Sonal was understandably shy at first. She has rarely spoken to someone from a higher caste, let alone inquisitive foreigners from 10,000 miles away.
Self confidence takes charge
I asked Sonal what she likes to do outside of school. Suddenly, she was so bubbly that she can’t seem to contain herself. “I love English movies!” she says, barely taking a breath, “I can’t understand the speaking but I read the subtitles. Spiderman is my favorite movie! And also I love Kung Fu movies. Jackie Chan is my favorite hero. And also Michael Jackson. And Sharukh Khan!”
She was very excited to find out that Steve loves Kung Fu movies, too, and grins when she learned that he’s even met Jackie Chan.
Sonal certainly loves movies, but she has not had many opportunities to see them. This is the result of being a ‘Dalit’—a member of India’s lowest caste and one of the so-called ‘untouchables’. She has lived in Surat’s slums her entire life, where hundreds of thousands of people live in shanty communities packed into tiny pieces of land where a TV is an unheard-of luxury. The streets are small alleyways filled with garbage and human waste. Being outside in this environment is highly unsafe—especially for a young girl.
An environment of constant challenge
Sonal is well aware of these realities. “The area where I stay is very bad,” she tells us, “Even if you have a full body covering, you shouldn’t go outside.” Many of the boys start drinking at an early age and alcoholism, sexual harassment and sexual assault are facts of daily life.
“There are many fights on the streets and there is a lot of theft. There is even murder,” Sonal says truthfully.
Hopelessness is no longer an option
“Recently I was having fear,” Sonal says quietly. “I have been having a brain problem. I was feeling like crying all the time. Some days I feel like, ‘I will die today’.” Sonal’s anxiety levels have been high throughout her life and she has already developed a number of nervous habits.
“I have a habit of drinking a lot of water until my stomach is in a lot of pain. I have to go to the bathroom many times but my stomach still hurts. I do the same thing repeatedly due to tension,” she tells us.
“I was having fear that I can’t face this problem. I was feeling sad. Every time I thought about it I would start crying.” Sonal has been under a doctor’s care for these problems but until now has seen minimal improvement.
However, Sonal no longer feels that the situation is hopeless. After participating in CorStone’s Children’s Resiliency Program for Girls, Sonal feels that her anxiety, sadness and physical pain have drastically decreased.“Now I feel better. I learned that even if someone is giving me pain, I can forgive them. I need to live with love. No one should be hurting another person.”
Sonal | Girls First Participant
Against all odds, instead of conforming to community norms of hopelessness and violence, Sonal is growing up to become a strong and self-assured young woman.Hopelessness replaced with confidence to face her challenges. #Resilience #GirlsFirst Click To Tweet
As a result of the CorStone program, she has internalized a language that empowers her to make change and is able to identify positive activities (“I really enjoy writing. English is my favorite subject!”), as well as positive forces in her life that she can draw upon in times of crisis (“My parents are good. They love me very much and support me in my learning”).
Sonal is still deciding on her life path and she thinks that scientific research might really interest her. With her enthusiastic embrace of the Girls First program, it may have made a contribution to help her reach her goals.