“I am Beautiful”

That’s a wrap! Here are some of the highlights from the last week:

Learning a few songs!

Learning a few songs!

We went over the message of the “I am Woman” song by Helen Reddy again. When I asked them what the song hoped to convey, all of them screamed “woman is strong!” Then, we went over another song called “I am beautiful” by the talented Christina Aguilera. This song speaks to how one is beautiful regardless of what everyone else thinks. She sings that words shouldn’t bring anyone down, and being strong will allow one to withstand any hurt. I found the song empowering and the kids loved this song as well! That they were understanding the messages was wonderful. We emphasized if all of them wanted to become doctors, teachers or dancers, they need to be strong and remember that they are capable of beating all odds.  

Teaching them the songs. Here, I'm with Ms. Vanaja

Teaching them the songs. Here, I’m with Ms. Vanaja.

At another session, I gave them English -Kannada dictionaries. The moment I gave it to them, I saw their eyes light up! All of them knew how to use a dictionary, but had never had any of their own. If they are reading something, and they don’t know the meaning, all they have to do is look it up. I gave it to them, hopeful this will be one way of empowering them long after they graduate from the school and start their own journeys. All the kids are curious and bright, and with this tool, they will be able to grasp even more English. Knowing English can help them get a job, converse with others (India is the second largest English speaking country in the world), and be financially independent. 

Hopefully through letters and phone calls, the kids and I will keep in touch. I’ve seen the kids open up so much during the past three weeks. I am hopeful of  bright future for each of them. Yesterday, I had a meeting with Ms. Sumedha, of Whitefield Rising, to discuss the sustainability of the project. In the next few weeks, Whitefield Rising, a volunteer organization that works closely with schools in the area, will establish a support system for these girls with other NGOs, doctors, and law enforcement. At the grassroots level, inviting professionals like Sinu Joseph who helped me with the project, will get the kids to open up even more. In the end, these girls will have the opportunity to choose a life they want to lead — that is true empowerment. 

The kids showing me their  dance for India's upcoming Republic Day.

The kids showing me their dance for India’s upcoming Republic Day.

Thanks once again to Macalester IGC for this wonderful opportunity! I’ve learned so much from this short project and can’t wait to come back again to do more with these wonderful kids. Now, off to the US for another busy semester! 

— Shruthi

“I am Strong, I am Invincible, I am Woman!”

Another week flew by! Some highlights from the last week:

I invited expert Health educator and founder of the Mythri initiative, Sinu Joseph to one of our sessions. She is a wonderful person who has committed her energy and talents to educating girls about being girls. During the session, she asked the kids to raise their hands if they had already attained puberty — six girls raised their hands shyly. As a warm up to the session, she started talking about her experiences with getting her period for the first time: she thought she had hurt herself on seeing the blood. She told them that she had thought that men wore sanitary napkins too! The kids thought she was hilarious and related to the naivety and cluelessness of her experience.

The girls who had attained puberty shared their stories about how they got their first period. Some of them were at school when it happened, some taking a bath when it happened. Sharing their stories about their first period was a way to tell the girls that getting their period is their special and unique moment and instead of being ashamed of it, they should be proud.

Asking questions, and getting the right answers

Sharing with the group!

Sharing with the group!

Sharing with the group!

Sinu’s Mythri initiative had made an extremely informative video module in Kannada (with English subtitles) that talks about the common myths and misconceptions, biological basics and hygienic practices regarding menstruation. We screened the half hour video for them using a portable projector and a white sheet. The kids really enjoyed the videos and had many questions to ask. It was nice to see them share their concerns like: what do I do if I don’t get regular periods OR is menstrual blood impure blood? At the end of the session, Sinu urged the girls to share what they had learnt with their mothers and sisters and carry it forward. I told the girls to document whatever they learnt in the journals I had given them, and add any questions they have.

Working closely with these kids, it was obvious how bright all of them were. These kids are so impressionable and receptive that they are ready to learn any knowledge that comes their way. At another session, we had a “Dream Day”. We asked every girl to stand up and tell us what they wanted to do with their lives. We got 5 doctors, 6 engineers, 3 school teachers, and 4 dancers/musicians. I asked them how they plan to accomplish their goals: they said that they had to finish high school and college for a better life. We emphasized that they could  do anything they wanted as long as they worked hard, were determined and had ambition. If boys can do it, so can girls. The kids heartily agreed. One even said, “I will finish school because I can!”

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“Dream Day”

We summarized the session with asking them what they had learnt. One resoundingly common theme for them was that it was important to take care of themselves. I asked them if they had talked to their “amma-s and akka-s (mothers and sisters)” about the session. They said they had. I told the girls they should talk about these things with their loved ones to spread awareness within their community. We even touched upon the recent rapes that had occurred in New Delhi and one girl said that she had heard about it. I couldn’t tell if the others had heard about it as well. I decided that “rape” was a discussion topic for another day.

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Learning the song

We even listened to a motivational song “I am Woman” by Helen Reddy” in one of the sessions. In many ways, the song related to the themes we have been covering in our sessions. This song is about women can be strong and invincible. I went over the meaning of the lyrics with the kids and the translator helped me explain some phrases they didn’t know. At the end of the song, the kids knew the chorus and were humming it happily. The chorus had three critical lines: “I am Strong, I am Invincible, I am Woman!” They were eager to learn more songs like it. By the end of the session, whenever we asked them a question or asked them to answer their own questions, they all said “…because I am strong…” Those words can pull anyone out of dark times and help propel them towards greater things. That they were saying those words themselves was heartwarming.

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Getting volunteers to read different lines of the song

One more week and then I’m back to Mac!

Project in Full Swing!

Wow, the first week of the project really flew by! Of course, there were minor hiccups here and there, but in the end it has been one great learning experience. With every passing day of the project, I am constantly expanding the scope of the program under the umbrella of empowerment. I’m tailoring the project as I understand what teaching techniques and topics work and what don’t as I get to know the kids better. They are all so eager to learn and I’m really lucky to have such a bright, lively and attentive bunch. At the end of week 1, I gifted the kids a small journal. They asked me why? I said “to share your thoughts, experiences and questions because what you have to say is important.”

A note I wrote in their journals.

A note I wrote in their journals.

The school (Ramagondanahalli Government school) I teach at is a Kannada (the vernacular language) medium school. I’m familiar with the language, and the kids can speak English to an extent. However, I was sure that having a translator would keep the message intact and allow the kids to be comfortable receiving a message they can understand fully. Now, I have a translator, Ms Varaja who is a part time teacher at the school. She has committed to staying back after school to help me.

The kids!

The kids!

Everyday, I continue to emphasize that our  biological changes make us, girls and women, beautiful. As a result, we should be proud and confident. I explained that women everywhere in the world experience this unique process — girls in America, and down the road all go through similar challenges. I told them about my experience with it, and how I experience cramps, and headaches with every period. I wanted to create an environment where they could all share.

I’ve been doing a lot of activities with the kids. One time, I asked the kids to draw some injustice they see in their lives or environment to get things going. They went around the circle explaining what their picture was. One girl Priyanka, explained her picture: it was a girl who was walking back from school and was taken into the woods and raped. the girl was some relative of hers and that she had even seen the body. She said this with a sense of nonchalance and even shrugged at the end. It was like she had been so hardened by circumstances in her life. It was empowering and emboldening to see them sharing these intimate details with me. It reminded of what a wise soul had once told me: “It’s times like these when we as women come together and become  open with each other. I think this is what empowers us and makes us stronger.”

Doing the activity.

Doing the activity.

Another activity included the kids writing sentences in English or Kannada that described a situation related to their environment and them being girls. How do they precisely articulate the gendered discrimination and injustices happening around them? The sentences included strong words like ‘shame’ or ‘torture’. They see these situations as painful, irritating and potentially harmful and not something they should be subject to.

During the last session of the week, we had a question and answer session. I asked all the kids to tell me some question or situation that they want to share. The questions and situations included: why do men stare at us, why do they whistle at us, why do they touch us, why don’t brothers touch their sisters, what if an elder man touches me, I’ve seen an older man touch his young daughter, a random man hit me on the road. We had to coax some kids to share and when they did, it was like something heavy tormenting them inside was pouring out. One girl even broke down because she couldn’t share something that was eating her inside. I could tell it was really hurting her because she found it hard to share. She was obviously going through something really tough. I tried my best to answer them in a helpful manner and direct them to people who had more experience than I do.

Question and Answer session with Ms. Varaja.

Question and Answer session with Ms. Varaja.

Question and answer session with Ms. Varaja.

Question and answer session with Ms. Varaja.

A meeting with renowned Bangalore based lawyer and former UNICEF consultant, Ms Divya Mundkar was eye opening. Her advice was simple and helpful. Education is the best way to empower these young girls. Their survival instincts will supercede any other desire to learn and open their minds to world around them. A lot of them drop out because they have to support their families. Making sure these girls stay in school till they graduate will ensure that they can have a fair shot at life and remain economically independent when they are married. That will ensure long lasting empowerment.

All in all, it’s been an exciting and tiring week. I can’t wait to get started on week 2! I’ll keep all of you updated. Stay warm!

— Shruthi

“In Praise of a Goddess”: Getting Started!

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.

Inside the classroom where the project will take place!

Inside the classroom where the project will take place!

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.

At Ramagondanahalli Government school.

At Ramagondanahalli Government school.

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.

Outside the classroom.

Outside the classroom.

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