Voices India needs to hear to reap the urban dividend

Equipping girls from all strata of society with the right set of tools to make informed choices and speak up for themselves will be critical for the progress of urban society and economy, writes Malini Gopalakrishnan.

I first met Faiza Aijaaz a month back. Her school in Hyderabad was one of the seven Minority Welfare Schools where our organisation was all set to start working. Faiza was one of the smallest girls in Grade 7, a class of girls aged between 11 and 13.

Shy and reserved at first, Faiza turned out to be bright as a button. As a part of vetting the students and the school, our team was to have a short interaction with the girls. During this session – an activity that placed the spotlight on the various physical, emotional and societal changes that accompany puberty – we discovered a gem! Little Faiza, with her quiet smile and her big pensive eyes, had a BIG voice!

She spoke and articulated her thoughts clearly; her words seemed to reflect a maturity beyond her years. We left for the day, with her image in our head, grinning at the camera with her quiet smile, signaling ‘V’ with her fingers.

A week later, we were at an event to commemorate the birth anniversary of Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad. It was an event of staggering proportions and there were thousands of students, both boys and girls, attending. We were there to talk about our work with adolescent girls from marginalized communities.

Our stall looked colourful, every surface displaying unabashed grins and happy campers. One of these large posters was a picture of little Faiza. The day dragged on, with several interested patrons stopping by to enquire about the various aspects of our work. It was some time during these sessions that in a sudden burst of colour, Faiza and her classmates suddenly descended upon us!

The excited twittering, giggles and incessant chatter around us suddenly made everything much brighter. As the girls looked for themselves in the many photographs, a quiet hand held mine. It was Faiza. “Nice picture, Akka” she said. “I have made a project. It is exhibited here. Will you come and see?”

I skip along after her to the area where students’ exhibits have been lined up. She talks to me in her low, shy voice about her creation, a visual representation of the differences between physical changes and chemical changes. The event goes on.

Just as we are about to wind up, I see Faiza again. This time she is accompanied by a frail, middle-aged woman. Faiza leads her over to our stall and points out her photograph to the woman, who bursts into uncontrollable fits of sobs. ‘This is my mother,’ Faiza tells me. It is then that I learn of Faiza’s circumstances as told to me by her mother.

Battling all odds to find her voice

Faiza lives with her mother on the outskirts of Hyderabad, well beyond the reach of the shining city lights. Her father, who has been in and out of the picture for years, has four other ‘wives’ and has fathered 24 children. While Faiza’s mother was unaware of his doings till much later, there was little she could do to escape his clutches even after finding out.

Visits from her husband inevitably meant violent bursts of rage and beatings that mother and daughter became accustomed to. Faiza has two other sisters, one elder and one much younger. While the youngest died from an unknown illness, Faiza’s elder sister was taken away by their father to ‘the Gulf’ under the guise of getting her employment. Faiza and her mother have not heard from either of them since then. ‘He must have sold her off somewhere,’ says Faiza’s mother in another burst of tears.

She touches the picture of Faiza that we have taped to the wall. ‘She is my only hope. I want her to make it. I want her to be strong enough to stand up and fight against the fate that is assigned to girls. She must learn to be strong. She is a bright child. That is why I send her to a residential school, away from me. I want her to learn,’ says Faiza’s mother, with feeling.

The message for India

The story of Faiza’s family is one of many that we encounter in the course of our regular work. It is the harsh reality of being a girl or a woman in India. In fact adolescent girls in India are among the most vulnerable groups in the country, as they are susceptible to risks such as child marriage, teen pregnancy, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, malnutrition, and even trafficking.

Statistics show that a whopping 66.9% of 14-18-year-old girls are out of school; 44.5% of girls are married before they turn 18; 47.3% of girls between the ages of 15 and 24 think it is okay for husbands to beat up their wives.

And yet with the right set of tools — encompassing knowledge of fundamental rights, health, menstruation, nutrition, safety from abuse, fundamental rights, life skills and basic spoken English (communication) skills — adolescent girls can make informed choices, speak up for themselves and break the regressive cycles of poverty, ignorance and inequality.

It has been our experience that activity-based camps conducted at government and low-cost private schools by trained college students go a long way in giving these girls a voice, and a platform where they feel safe to talk about their concerns and raise critical questions.

Much is being written about India’s urbanisation story almost every day now. To realise its true potential, however, it is essential to empower the urban poor, and equitably so, so that all of them can realise their aspirations. Unfortunately, Indian society still thinks little of investing in the girl child. Attitudes at large are gendered, and unless we can ensure equal opportunities for boys and girls from all strata of society, we will not be able to break out of the regressive cycles that are not only harmful to society at large but also to the economy.

When girls are educated and informed, they not only reimagine their own future but also bring about positive change all around them. This change echoes through generations around each girl who has been empowered in this way. Faiza is rewriting her story, she will narrate it someday and inspire many others to follow in her footsteps. The progress of our cities will depend on whether we can help the Faizas living in them find their voice.

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