Nagaratna, 13, belongs to an indigent farming family in Raichur, a small town in Karnataka. Having dropped out of school after Class 6 in order to lend a hand with the chores at home, she did not have much to look forward to in life. Until a few months ago.
Now, she dreams, of "doing something", not only for herself but also for society as part of a novel project called 'Kishori Sangha' (young girl's association). Under the state-run Mahila Samakhya Programme, this project is drawing hundreds of adolescent girls from villages and small towns into self-help activism.
Nagaratna was one of about 30 teenage girls from different parts of Karnataka who gathered at Bangalore for a three-day 'convention' in March to discuss empowerment strategies.
A cluster of Kishoris held discussions in workshops in a separate enclosure to discuss how adolescent girls like them from villages and small towns, could become active social agents for change.
Simultaneously, over 500 adult women, mostly non-literate villagers, also gathered in the city for workshops and interactive sessions under different heads: women in governance, women and health, legal awareness, gender equity, self-reliance and development.
For many of the young girls, this was their first experience of travelling outside their homes and villages -- and their first experience of a bus or train journey. "Yes, I was a little scared," says Nagamani, shyly but also with a sense of new-found confidence and excitement. "After arriving here and meeting the other participants and noticing that they too were village
girls who dressed and spoke like me and that we were all equals in terms of inexperience, I did not feel diffident. I learnt a lot during the conference and this is something that will change my life and outlook forever," she adds.
The sessions under the Kishori Sangha banner consisted of narrating and exchanging experiences about activities for young girls in their own communities, the problems faced and the strategies developed.
Initially, many of the participants (all under 18) were tongue-tied and too shy to articulate their opinions. But with assistance from two adult Mahila Samakhya members, who gently set the ball rolling by narrating a story or throwing up a comment for discussion, the timid girls were soon interacting actively.
What can girls of 12 and 13 brought up in conservative rural families do on their own, to change their lifestyle parameters? "We can become aware, to start with," the girls chorused, "And learn to think for ourselves as self-confident individuals instead of being afraid - afraid of adults,
afraid to speak up, afraid even to have opinions of our own. We used to be told 'You are just a girl', but now, after we got together to form the Kishori Sanghas in our villages, we want to show that we too can play a role in community development," says one of them.
Kishori Sanghas were formed last year in 151 villages in Bijapur, Gulbarga, Raichur and Koppal districts of the state, all characterised by low indices of the status of women. These are the areas where child marriages and dedication of young girls as devadasis (a culturally sanctioned form of prostitution) continue to be problems.
The need for this initiative is demonstrated by the fact that over 1,800 girls have already been enrolled as members. The girls help Mahila Samakhya members in documentation, writing applications and activities, which the non-literate adult women are unable to cope with on their own. "It is a mutually beneficial relationship for the women and the girls," says Revathi
Narayan, State Director of Mahila Samakhya.
Not only that, the girls have started their own savings scheme, with weekly contributions of Rs two (1 US$=Rs 48) per head. This money has been used for various activities. For instance, in Gulbarga district, the girls have lent their savings for health and education work undertaken by the adult Samakhya members.
The girls had their own specific dilemmas to discuss and learn from each other too: what does one do when parents declare that an adolescent daughter should not go out on her own, much less get involved in community work? "It is easier to convince them if we try it in a group, that is what
we did in our village," suggests one group from Bidar, while another speaks about the problem of girls being stopped from attending school after the primary stage.
And this brought up the topic of dropouts. "We go from house to house and help the Samakhya women in enumeration work," says one girl, "This way, we are able to persuade individual families to keep their daughters in school."
The Kishoris have even organised evening classes for those who are unable to attend regular schools. And dropout rates in villages that have Kishori Sanghas are reported to have registered a fall already though statistics are not available.
Networking brings other benefits too - in terms of sharing information and awareness about health, for instance. No one discusses health issues pertaining to adolescents in the villages and the girls have no one to turn to. The Kishori Sangha gives them a platform to sit together and learn about physiological changes in the body during adolescence, the risks of early and unwanted pregnancies and child marriages. Predictably, all the Kishoris say that they will not get married till they are 18 or 20. "If our parents force us, we will turn to the Sangha and seek support," they maintain. The Sangha thus becomes a surrogate 'big sister' lending moral and physical support.
The girls are still indigent and poorly equipped in terms of conventional certificates, but their Sangha is equipping them with vitally important and equally valuable inputs - in terms of self-confidence, social awareness and group commitment.
As one adolescent Kishori puts it, "I love my mother but I do not want to be illiterate and self-effacing like her." This pithy comment sums up what Kishori Sanghas are all about.