“All the boys in my family know how to ride a bicycle, but none of the girls do. Papa gets angry. You want to fly but what do you do when Papa and Mama pull you down.” – Supriya Mishra, 12-year old girl
It is a cold Sunday afternoon in Kanpur, UP. Visibility is low. Men hover around chai-stands for some steaming garlic milk tea. I am on my way to Anooppur village, an animal herding village 25km away from Kanpur city. I had promised the young girls in that village that I would visit them and together we would do some fun activities. On the local bus, I frantically jot down some activities and attempt to create a schedule for the 2-hour session. Eventually I stop. Experience teaches you that spontaneity works best. Sometimes, unlike my habit of ‘having a plan’, being flexible and adapting to people’s needs gets the best results.
Anooppur is an Other Backward Caste (OBC) village. Every family’s last name is Pal because they are all from the same caste. Many young women and girls are high-school dropouts and marry at a very early age. Young women are taught from childhood how to be a good cook, to clean the house, to take care of younger children, and to help with farm work. Education does not seem to be a priority, especially not for girls. It is in this village where I first met Ragini and Ruchi, a 6-year old and a 9-year old, the domestic queens. Everyone in the village commends the sisters for the amount of housework they do everyday. At that age, I had never even cut an apple for myself.
That Sunday, around thirty girls attend the Sunday session where we play drama games and draw pictures of our dream village. Some girls are excited, some are timid, some are scared.
“Sapna, come back home,” shouts her mother from outside, 90 minutes into the session.
The young women hand me back their drawings and begin to head to the door.
“Dhanyavad,” I thank them, raising my voice a little to gain their attention, “But give me five more minutes please.” I inform them that I want to sing a song with them and that maybe we can sing it next time.
“Nahi, nahi, teach us now.” The young women are eager. Together, we sing a song that an elder community woman composed. The content is on the need of using hand-pump water, instead of old and dirty wells for drinking water in the village. The tune is catchy, the words have meaning. Before I know it, the young women were singing along, moving their heads just like I was.
“Next time, can we have the words to the song? I want to sing it while I sweep the floor,” asks Seema, an 18-year old young women.
“You can still sing,” I say. I sing the chorus – paani na barvaho, panni na barvaho, koau say panni na barvaho – and animatedly imitate sweeping the floor. (Translation: don’t fill water, don’t fill water from the well)
“Didi, can we write our own song next time?” Sunita asks.
“Or our own radio drama?” adds Aditi.
I am ecstatic. I never thought that they would ask to do something like this. Ideas are rushing through my mind, how to do something where these young women will develop their own programs and be makers of their own product, where young women can work together, support each other to create change, no matter how small. Maybe, they’ll teach each other how to ride a bicycle.
A spirit lies dormant in the hearts of young women like Sunita, Aditi, Seema, Ruby, Ruchi, Ragini, Supriya, Bitu. Now, that spirit is beginning to stretch its arms and legs. Now, it’s beginning to open its eyes, smell the fresh air, hear the birds chirping, taste the sweetness, and feel the awaiting flight to freedom.
Pooja Shahani, August 2010 Indicorps Fellow