“I don’t come here just to learn writing a few words, I come here because I feel safe to share my views and opinions without being judged. I have not had this space before,” said Tara one night while we sat on a small chatayi (mat) under the solar light in a narrow lane of the Dalit basti (village) in Nosal, a village in Ajmer, Rajasthan.
These words not only made me happy but provided an insight to the value of creating ‘safe spaces’ in the process of learning and development – personal, social, economic, or any other kind of development for that matter. There are multiple perspectives on how development/progress of a country should be viewed and one of the popular arguments has been that solutions to the problems of a community must emerge from the community itself for more sustainability. The question is – how?
The process of development through this lens has its own challenges. The first one for those of us who study development formally in colleges is to break our own stereotypes and listening, really listening to what the community has to say because what I may identify as a problem may not be the real issue for a rural community, like the one I was staying in for the last three months. The second challenge for me personally was related to the first one – identifying one’s stereotypes but being able to draw a line to prevent myself from normalising a real problem. This is where the role of these safe spaces comes in, they help to see beyond the tip of the iceberg to the root causes of issues through conversations and building trust in each other!
This takes me back to one of the discussions we had in the girls’ school in the village, the workshop was on menstruation which still remains a taboo issue in our society, generally associated with shame when it is spoken about. There were three of us, two of my team-mates from the UK and I, we had together taken up the project to talk about health and hygiene issues through a series of workshops in the girls’ school. The girls who attended the workshops were in the age group of 11-15 years, and menstruation and sexual health had been tricky topics to touch upon. In the first workshop, we tried to initiate a conversation about the differences between a male and female body, awkward silences amongst the girls and fear remained in the classroom, but the girls did open up a little bit when we had some fun activities going on. We asked the girls by the end of the workshop that how many of them felt shameful or fearful to talk about their bodies and 26/26 raised their hands!
We held on to what had worked – fun activities and sharing our personal accounts related to the topics. By the fourth workshop, the girls had started sharing their feelings with us. They, in fact, asked us to create workshops around topics like child marriage, dowry and laws concerning such issues, these topics came out of their own experiences and needs. The first step though was to build trust, and that can only be built if there is openness to share and receive on both ends. This space helped me to gain so much knowledge and expand my outlook through anecdotes I would not have known otherwise.
We had a similar experience in the night classes that were actually demanded by women in the village, it was not what we had in mind. It all started with a meeting with village women about their health issues where Bhawri mentioned, “Yes, we can talk about health issues but we have problems reading what is written on the forms when we go to a hospital, we want to learn reading and writing first, start with our names!” And we did, we started with their names.
Slowly, the women and girls started teaching each other, daughters teaching their mothers, sisters teaching sisters, friends teaching each other, peer to peer learning. One of my favourite moments was when I was trying to explain ‘poornaviraam‘ (full stop in Hindi, written like: ‘|’) and Neetu, one of the girls said-“Didi, inhe poornaviraam nahi samjhega, danda bolo danda!” (They will not understand full stop, explain to them saying it looks like a stick), they developed their own vocabulary over time to learn. Every other night, Bhawri came with a huge smile already reciting what she remembered from the last class – “My name is Bhawri, yours?”
The women had their own jokes going on all the time, and eventually the learning was not only writing their names, it was more about sharing their lives, a place where they could laugh out loud and support each other simply through conversations. Topics like government schemes and vocational training came up organically. Now this night class that started in a narrow lane under a solar light is on its way to becoming ‘Sustainable School for Development’, supported by the grass-root organisation, Manthan, based in the same area. The most beautiful part still remains the peer-to-peer learning. Two of the girls from the village are being trained to run the school and the school committee consists of 5 women from the Dalit hamlet. The syllabus is being designed keeping in mind the lives of those who would be studying there, through their own suggestions.
I had gone for my volunteering journey with Pravah ICS with many questions, I have not come back with as many answers, but I have come back with powerful experiences around trust which have encouraged me to delve deeper, to say that ‘I don’t know’ but let’s try to look! And one of the ways I have found for looking are these ‘safe spaces’.