By Sanjana Yadav:
Imagine a school where children have the freedom to wear clothes of any gender, any colour, and any style they feel comfortable in. A school where boys learn the art of cooking and host feasts for locals while girls flex their muscles and wrestle competitively in the courtyard. A school where each child understands and can differentiate a ‘good touch’ from a ‘bad touch’. One where each child respects personal boundaries and accepts the strengths and weaknesses of their fellow classmates.
Through the efforts of my teammates and me at the Barefoot College, there exist 27 schools, spread across 14 states, where we have worked with teachers and local communities to develop and integrate gender-sensitive curriculums.
Traveling through the rural areas of Rajasthan back in 2017, I couldn’t help but notice how gender-based discrimination is engraved deeply in the very roots of our society. From holding their bladders in the absence of adequate indoor toilets in rural areas, to the demarcations of stringent gender roles, calling a boy a girl is still the greatest insult. I found out how parents have imprinted their opinions onto children who, due to the lack of corrective educational influences, have no room for questioning as an adult.
I believe that education or schooling is a process through which society creates the kind of individuals we wish to see in the world. Hence, it’s imperative that the school curriculum lays strong emphasis on inculcating values of equality, inclusivity, and diversity, all of which are essential for building a healthy society. That’s when I decided to make school students and teachers sensitive about gender issues and promote critical thinking among children to question stereotypes and deconstruct identities such that a positive gender equity ideology can be created during the formative years of the child.
With the idea of Gender Equity Clubs in rural areas for children belonging to the 6-14 years age group, we have successfully neutralised gender-dominated spaces by engaging children in various activities and awareness sessions on child abuse, domestic violence, and child marriage, stereotypes, menstruation, etc. Using a ‘learning-by-doing’ approach, we engage and sensitise children on gender-issues using tools such as poster-making, storytelling, poetry recitals, debates, skits, movie screenings, and group activities.
Being brought up in an orthodox setup of this patriarchal society, I have witnessed the unjust treatment of women all my life. After losing a cousin to domestic violence, I decided to dedicate my life to the purpose of mitigating gender violence and providing relief to the amputated spirits of those women who have lived through sexual assault and abuse.
During the initial surveys, I discovered 6-year-old children saying that it was okay to beat the woman if she commits a mistake and that the only aspiration 10-year-old girls had was to become a “lugai”(wife). Girls expressed that they are not given milk, almost 30% of the children were married and more than half of them were victims of child abuse. I believe that the mentality that denies women power can only be restructured at the root level of its origination. Reaching out to the most marginalised communities who are the most suppressed, neglected, unheard populations, we are transforming the mindsets of our future generation in their formative years.
The curriculum is not limited to breaking the stark gender roles built in our society. In these schools where boys cook food along with the girls and girls play football with fellow classmates, they also learn to identify risk and learn the importance of consent. Students learn physical skills to enforce their position. Boys learn to challenge rape myths, ask for consent, and intervene if they anticipate or witness predatory behaviour. The aim is to teach the students the mental, verbal and physical skills they need to stay safe and change their culture of sexual coercion and violence by freely talking about the same.
In this long journey of breaking gender norms in 14 states in collaboration with Barefoot College, the biggest challenge I have faced is resistance from the community. It has been difficult to highlight the relevance of gender sensitivity in the most patriarchal regions of India without hurting cultural beliefs. In this journey of impacting lives, the short-term impact is not really visible. It is natural to feel demotivated at times, there is a need for validation and acknowledgment.
This is when V-Awards, an initiate by UN Volunteers India, provided the much-needed recognition and motivation to my work. We still live in a world where volunteer projects are not acknowledged as ‘real work’ and people are still afraid to support these initiatives. Personally, due to the stereotypical myths of ‘Samaj Seva’ (social service) prevalent in India, my parents couldn’t appreciate my choice of volunteering in the rural sector. Being applauded as a V-Awardee has not only helped me gain acceptance and understanding from my family but has also added more credibility to my work professionally.
I firmly believe that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a small step. We are a step ahead in creating a society of gender equals, but there is still a long way to go in creating a generation of equals. The only thing between you and your passion is one step. Have the courage and take a leap, because the journey of volunteering has a lot to offer, both personally and professionally. The key is to just be brave!
Sanjana Yadav was amongst 10 young, passionate change makers who were awarded the V-Awards organised by UN Volunteers India for their phenomenal contributions to society through volunteering. Are you a volunteer working towards a better tomorrow too? Apply today to be considered for this year’s V-Awards!