In an interesting visit to Bhachau, a semi-urban block located in the Kutch district of Gujarat, a team of trainers from Pro Sport Development, an organization working for the holistic development of youth through sports, faced challenges in bringing together boys and girls to address gender issues in society.
In the district most advertised by Gujarat Tourism, there are unnoticed tears behind the beautiful ‘ghungats’. Unseen and unheard by tourists and travellers are the cries of young women who fight with their parents to attend colleges. Economically, Gujarat is one of the most developed states in India, but it has not escaped the conflict between regressive traditions and progress that is present throughout the country.
As a part of Kadam Badhate Chalo (KBC), a youth-led initiative to end Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG), a workshop on Understanding Gender Through Sports was held in Bhachau in December. This 3-day workshop is uniquely designed to address gender issues using sports as a medium and was conducted by Pro Sport Development (PSD) in collaboration with the Martha Farrell Foundation (MFF) and the Society for Participatory Research In Asia (PRIA).
The workshop, held in Nav Gam, Bhachau, was attended by 27 youth (13 male and 14 female) from nearby Vondh and Manfara villages. These villages have extensive problems related to poverty and illiteracy. Only 52% of the 2,316 people residing in Manfara know how to read and write, but that figure drops to only 42% for women. Manfara has a government high school with students attending from 11 neighbouring villages, but most girls study only up to class 10. There were only 8-10 girls studying in class 11 and class 12, which is less than one girl from each nearby village.
Most of the students, regardless of their gender, drop out of school once they complete class 10. Majority of the boys migrate to cities like Ahmedabad and Mumbai to work as labourers and pick up odd jobs, while the girls stay back at home to get married. Higher education is not an option for most of these young women. One of the female participants at the workshop, 15-year-old Vidisha* revealed, “Our parents say that girls should work at home. We are destined to get married and work at our in-laws, but we want to study and work.”
Due to the cultural setup of Manfara, and under pressure from parents, the government high school has a set of rules and restrictions that bar girls and boys from having any form of communication. The parents don’t want their girls to talk to any boy. This has made the school change the way it teaches, with a teacher bringing all the girls to the class in a group. Then, they are all taken away till the end of the lesson to make sure that the boys and the girls don’t talk. Furthermore, once the school day is over, girls are let go 10 to 15 minutes before boys to make sure that they don’t talk to each other on their way back home.
Talking about why girls are made to sit separately, Vidisha* added, “We are made to sit separately in school, and school authorities make sure that there is no communication between boys and girls on the demand of our parents. Our parents and village are worried about the society. They don’t want us or any girl to talk to boys because they want to make sure girls don’t go down the wrong path. If we talk to anyone, we will be kept at home and not be sent to school. The school authorities put a lot of restrictions on us in order make sure that we all get an education.”
During the ‘Understanding Gender Through Sports’ workshop which was focused on bridging the gender gap between girls and boys, it was noticed that boys and girls maintained a distance of at least five feet between each other. They also did not utter a single word in the presence of boys. Any conversation or communication between boys and girls is still seen as a taboo in villages around Bhachau. Their understanding of gender was hard to break down at this time, but comments from participants such as those in this article show the seeds of change are there and KBC will be returning to Bhachau.
The next step for KBC is to raise and train youth leaders in and around Bhachau, who will work towards ending gender-based violence and ensure equal opportunities for women in every possible way. It will be a hard road, but it is important that we take steps towards change in a culture which stops women from studying, restricts women to kitchens, and discriminates and disregards womanhood.
* Name has been changed to protect the identity of the speaker