Shahid Smriti is a slum in Calcutta and we – the team from Parichiti – work there with women domestic workers and adolescent girls. The idea of working with girls is to get them to speak out and stand up for their rights. We now meet a group of 18 girls on Mondays and Wednesday every week.
On Mondays, trainers from Kolkata Sanved work with the girls on techniques of Dance Movement Therapy (DMT). The idea of DMT is to enable participants understand the joy and power of physical exercise and experience the connectedness between the mind and the body.
Different things happen on Wednesday. Maura Hurley of Shikshamitra and her assistant, Jahangir visit Shahid Smriti on alternate Wednesdays with a music system and a boxful of art and craft materials. The idea is to get the girls talking about their lives and also introduce new skills and ideas and have fun while we learn.
Of the 18 girls we meet on a regular basis, all but one goes to school and they are between 12 and 18 years old. A few weeks ago, on a Wednesday evening, we had a discussion with a group of 8 girls on why it was important to go to school.
“We go to school to learn so that we may realise our dreams,” said a 15 year old.
“What are these dreams?” I asked.
Two of the girls said that they would like to become police officers.
“Why?” I asked. “Don’t you think people in slums have more to lose than gain from the police?”
“The police are there to help people,” said Shivani. “We would like to be officers who help people, that is, do what they’re meant to do.”
One girl said that being an IPS officer meant that she could do things for people. Quite impressed to find a young girl knowing about ‘IPS officers’ we asked what they knew about the IPS or Indian Police Service. A few of them said that they had heard about ‘IPS officers’ on TV. This was a time when Damayanti Sen, an IPS officer, then Joint Commissioner of the Detective Department, had been in the news for working to get justice for a woman who had complained of rape in what has now gained notoriety as the Park Street rape. The girls, very bright and lively, did not seem to have heard of Damayanti Sen. We learnt that these girls did not read newspapers regularly and neither were they in the habit of listening to the news on TV.
We carried on the discussion about ‘dreams’, which focused on career plans that the girls had. It was exciting for us to note that none of the girls said she had no career plans. Two girls said that they wanted to become lawyers, some said they wanted to be teachers, one said that she wanted to become a nurse, another said a doctor.
“I love dancing. I want to be a dancer and a teacher,” said 12 year old Puja Baidya, excitedly.
In this discussion about the future, we touched on the topic of marriage – a threat, that we in Parichiti feel, hangs over girls in this country. Our experience tells us that despite the fact that the legal age for marriage of girls in India is 18 years, marriage before they attain legal majority is a reality for many girls in India, especially if they belong to poor families. The 2001 Census reported that the average age of marriage of females in India was 18.3 years, yet there is enough evidence to show that a large number of girls get married before they turn 18.
The girls in Shahid Smriti said that they were not going to get married before they completed their education. They said that they knew that it was important to get proper education and training if they were to realise their dreams. They spoke of the efforts they were making to bring their friend, Pinky, back to school and books. Pinky is in Class X and had got married some time ago, maybe when she was 14 or 15, to her boyfriend. Her friends were explaining to her that she should continue living with her parents, go back to school and prepare for her Madhyamik exams. As I write this, Pinky is back in school and also participating with her friends in Parichiti activities.
It is evident that girls in Shahid Smriti, like in most homes in India, irrespective of class, need an atmosphere that will enable them to speak frankly about sex, sexuality and marriage. A tolerance of sexual experimentation amongst young people will also go a long way in curbing a tendency to run away and get married the moment a young boy and a girl feel attracted to each other. However, all of us know that is easier said than done.
The girls in Shahid Smriti are excited about the possibilities their engagement with Parichiti might bring. As we talked about career plans, the girls said that they had seen or met women who were teachers, nurses and doctors. They had never met women who were either lawyers or police officers. Also, they were not very sure what exactly being in certain professions entailed – for example, what was the difference between a doctor and a nurse, what did a lawyer do? We concluded the evening with the decision that Parichiti will organise women from different professions to come for discussions with schoolgoing girls from Shahid Smriti. The girls said that these sessions would enable them to plan their lives.