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We keep girls and boys apart with ‘safety’ of girls given as a reason. But true gender equality cannot happen with such gender segregation!
“I come from a village where there is also caste based discrimination in addition to gender discrimination. I dropped out of school fearing that I will be made to sit outside the classroom because of my low caste and it took me a lot of efforts to understand that I am no less.”
So said a young woman I met recently.
How often do you find young women and men in India sitting together and freely sharing their ideas and experiences?
In a society like ours where it is almost a taboo for young women and men to be having conversations with each other, non-profit organization Plan India had a different view. They believe that keeping people unaware of each other’s challenges cannot achieve gender equality.
All around us in India, we always deal with strict segregation of both men and women. Even as children we have been restricted in our interactions with the members of other genders and it does not come as a shock to us that such segregated spaces exist.
But why does this matter to us at all? Weren’t we kept aside so that as girls, our safety is ensured? I would like to answer this with a ‘No’. I feel that such segregation leads to people being blinded to the perspectives of the other. In our context, it is the boys who are generally blinded to the lives, spaces, activities and concerns of girls. As grown men, this lack of perspective highly affects their social interactions with girls and women around them.
How do we then even think about solutions inclusive of the concerns of women and on the same coin, ensure that these solutions are implemented? The answer to this could at the basic level be to initiate conversations where men and women come together to speak about themselves, their concerns and issues.
On these lines Plan India, which works for children’s rights and welfare, organized a series of debatathons all over the country to get young people to discuss issues pertaining to gender equality, and I had a chance to attend the session in Hyderabad from 14th to 16th October 2017. With a specific focus on Gender vulnerability of girl children, these debatathons focused on bringing young men and women from various colleges across South India together to share their ideas and experiences and identify potential solutions.
Moderated by staff from the NGO Pravah, the debatathons sought to create a safe space for these young minds, where they could be themselves, express themselves, talk to one another and understand each other. The debates were conducted in such a manner that the participants had complete control over the topics, drawing from their own experiences with a specific focus on various issues of girls who represented various walks of lives.
The debatathon consisted of topics that ranged from the general to personal experiences. For instance, one participant revealed that, “The biggest problem girls today face is ‘fear’. As a young girl, my brother was prioritized; I went to the government school and he went to a private school. I strongly feel that women should support one another and I want to work on gender discrimination specifically to remove fear from young girls’ mind, to help them conquer fear and achieve something”.
The debates encouraged participants to think in terms of solutions and not just identify problems. There was an agreement that while it is fine to train women in self-defense and have security to increase protection, real equality can be said to be achieved only when we reach a position wherein there would be no need to think about protection at all. Gender education with specific focus on sensitizing the boys and not just girls was recognized as the need of the hour.
What is encouraging is that a few young men also seem to be thinking along these lines. One of the boys exclaimed, “I am extremely concerned about the safety of women. Every day we read so many incidents hampering the safety of women and it disheartens me that some men are the reason for them. I want to engage with youth counseling, specifically with boys to sensitize them regarding the issues and concerns of women”. Sexual abuse was a topic that was debated extensively.
Another major issue discussed was that of girls dropping out of school. The participants critically analyzed reasons and linked lack of safety for girls as a big barrier in their continuing education. The other reason was lack of sanitation and hygiene in schools. “Whenever there is poverty, or a need to take care of the house, undoubtedly it will be the girl who will drop out. In some cases, parents and community members play an active role in discouraging girls from continuing education,” stated a young woman who works at an NGO as a community volunteer.
One interesting suggestion by the participants was that the government should use technological tools to solve issues of infrastructure. Participants belonged to diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, which was evident in the topics chosen and arguments presented. There was a striking difference between the problems of girls belonging to rural and urban areas, of different classes and castes indicating clearly the impact of intersectionalities on girl child vulnerability. Youth came up with holistic solutions where family, community and government together worked to create more inclusive and gender just world.
It is important to realize that transformation will not happen overnight; people may realize the importance, depth and interconnectedness of various issues standing as barriers in attaining a better world for women, but without the involvement of many more women and specially men and constant critical engagement, the destination cannot be reached particularly in the real world where gender barriers are deeper and harder to break.
This debatathon made me believe yet again that a gender just world is possible but not without conversations and not without us creating safe spaces for such our girls to speak out and our boys to listen, accept, understand for both of them to be able to flourish and evolve.
If you would like to be a part of this initiative, and help create a more just world for all our girls, learn more about this initiative and you can become a volunteer or donate to support Plan India’s valuable work.
This article is part of the #LeaveNoGirlBehind campaign supported by Plan India, of which Women’s Web is a proud media partner.