A couple of weeks back, I made the long trip (almost 20 hours) from Macalester, back home to dynamic and colorful India. It was a long and tiresome journey. Spending precious time with my wonderful and supportive family after a long and challenging semester was one of the rewards. Working on my J-term Live it! project, “In praise of a goddess” (starts 3rd of January) was the other reward. The project will address critical issues I’m very passionate about: women’s empowerment.
Growing up partly in India, I have witnessed firsthand how disempowered our women actually are. The degrees of disempowerment vary according to which rung of the societal ladder they belong to. One of the frustrations I’ve personally faced is not being able to talk openly and honestly about the biological processes occurring in my body. If certain phenomena are occurring in women’s bodies, why shouldn’t they talk about it, and proudly so? India is a land of paradoxes, and I’ve always been confused as to why Indian culture celebrates the onset of puberty but frowns upon women entering places of worship during their menstrual cycle even in this day and age. By not allowing our women to talk about these biological processes in an honest and intentional manner, we are shutting off their voice which is their fundamental human right. I had a wonderful time growing up in India, but, at times, it felt stifling and claustrophobic.
My project idea emerged out of these feelings and frustrations that have naturally accumulated over my ten years in India. “In praise of a goddess” is an after-school program for 7th grade girls to learn more about menstruation, empowerment, and how to take care of themselves. The principle behind this project is that empowerment comes with more information. So, by teaching them about the biological changes occurring in their bodies, my hope is that they can consequently become more confident and feel good. This aim of this project is to create a supportive community of girls and women who can share concerns and ask questions galore without being judged. I hope to play the role of a mentor and supplement the sessions with my experiences growing up as a girl in India. As Chiara de Blasio (daughter of the new NYC mayor Bill de Blasio) who has suffered from depression recently stated “We really can’t do anything as a society to help those people until we start talking about it.” That is the underlying principle of my project.
The first week I got back, I met with the seventh grade girls I’m going to work with, as well as a community action group representative, Sumedha who works closely with these young girls. Sumedha told me about the background these girls come from: many of them are from the lowest strata of society. The young girls don’t have the resources to seek help in if they are abused, and don’t know who or where to go in case of an emergency. Sumedha said that many of these girls drop out of school to work with their parents who are construction workers or farmers nearby. We told the girls about the project, why it is important for them, and encouraged them to attend the program. It was a pleasure meeting with the girls, and they all seemed eager to attend this “first of its kind” project.
Later in the week, I met with health educator, Sinu Joseph with whom I had been corresponding about “In praise of a goddess”. She talks to young girls about menstruation, sex and being a girl from a relatable point of view under the banner of ‘Mythri Initiative’ which means: “friendship” and “community” in Sanskrit. I observed her talking to girls at one government school about these issues and answering their questions. She was gentle, attentive and played the role of a mentor well. She asked the girls to write down any personal questions they had on a piece of paper. She wasn’t didactic, but, instead asked them to provide answers to the questions. She encouraged them to think on their feet, use their wits and help them help themselves. In the end, Sinu gave them the local sexual abuse helpline information they could use in an emergency and explained why it is a resource for them.
After the two hour session, two girls shyly came up to her asking her if they could call her if anything happened to them. It seemed like one of the girls was going through a tough situation and needed help. Sinu graciously said yes, and told them that they could call her if any trouble arose. It really warmed my heart seeing these girls getting the help they needed when they didn’t know where to turn. We later paid a brief visit to the headmistress of the school and Sinu summarized the questions the kids were asking in the local language Kannada. The headmistress invited Sinu to come to school again, because she saw how much the girls had enjoyed the session.
In the week leading up to the project, I hope to meet with a local lawyer who works primarily with cases of eve-teasing (sexual harassment) and sexual abuse afflicting the women of Bangalore city. I hope to gain some professional insight of the current situation for women in India, and convey that information to the girls I’m working with and discuss the issues of contemporary India . This will give the girls the big picture — that there are women in India and in the world who are abused, mistreated and discriminated against and struggle in different and unique ways.
At the moment, I’m planning out my program in detail making sure that it will be interactive, fun and informative. I’m thinking of all the topics and trying to brainstorm ideas and activities for the kids. I can’t wait to get started on my project and start working with the girls. Macalester’s Institute of Global Citizenship has given me this great opportunity to make my ideas into reality. If you want to change the world, you have to start somewhere. This project will allow me to positively impact the lives of girls in my community. For this, I derive inspiration from a comment by Steve Jobs: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
— Shruthi Kamisetty