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From the right to education to more complex issues like reproductive health, these students showed us it is possible to debate in a very democratic manner.
It was the first day of the Delhi chapter of the debatathons being conducted by Plan India and Pravah. Plan India is a child-focused organization that has since 1979, for 4 decades, worked consistently for the survival, protection, development and participation rights of all children, especially the most disadvantaged. Pravah too works to amplify youth participation and voices on these subjects.
The aim of the debatathon was to get young people together in dialogue, filter out strong themes around the girl child in India, and then help them represent the same at the National Conference to be held in New Delhi, attended by government nominees, policy makers and the media as well. While the 2017 theme for this crucial conference was ‘Leave No Girl Behind’, it was part of the long-term Plan India initiative, Plan For Every Child.
The hustle had already begun by the time I found myself a convenient spot to observe all the participants interacting. The icebreaker session, very aptly called ‘speed dating’, got the students to open up to one another as opposed to their initial hesitation. (The participants were students from various strata of society and hailed primarily from Jammu & Kashmir, Delhi, UP and Uttarakhand.)
By 11 a.m. the participants and even some of us who are there either as chaperons or observers were able to pin our responses on the ‘wish tree’ and ‘offer tree’, with the former representing our hopes for a more equal society, and the latter our willingness to offer our time and skills. While the expectations were still being formed and reformed, the willingness to offer one’s abilities was evident. Group dynamics certainly played a role in getting more participants to come forward; yet, it was a rather positive outcome – the time and attention of young people to social causes is priceless today where technology supersedes all aspects of young lives.
Around break time, some students opened up about their learnings from thus far in the day. Sensing some personal triggers regarding their participation in the event, a chat ensued over chai. Anahita* described her journey from a small town to Delhi in her pursuit of quality education. She explained that she was involved in social causes and kept herself ‘occupied’ in order to be able to extend all the help she could to those who needed it. Stressing on her usage of ‘occupied’, I probed further and her struggle with child abuse came to the forefront.
We spoke of the fear and stigma she had gone through and how proper guidance from a schoolteacher was responsible for her journey this far. She said, “Education empowered me and it is my responsibility to spread it to those who need it. I spare no stone unturned in doing my bit. Someone changed my life, I could change someone’s too”. Her eyes welled up while she summed up her entire story in these few sentences.
Post lunch chatter, the discussion continued and the body language became more open and confident as compared to what it was at the beginning. The conversations ranged from whether or not they had worked in the space of women’s issues, what they understood of it, the challenges faced by young women everyday and how the present workshop would enable their future course of action.
Amidst multiple voices, some voices albeit soft at first, left strong impressions. They ranged from challenges for young women in the hills where infrastructural access to education plays a decisive role in their futures as homemakers without any room for choice to the basic ‘need’ for education being felt for girl children at all.
The gender diverse group openly discussed social stigmas around menstruation and menstrual health. The discussion around social taboos soon became an open forum with more joining the debate. For some it was blatantly wrong to practice these existing taboos and the social responsibility of the young women to stand up against it; while a few drew attention to the logic that may have originally existed in the do’s and don’ts around menstruation. Both groups listened to each other, and we discussed when possible good intentions turned into absolute social stigma and the shunning of women during their periods.
The advancements in the discussion led us to the ideas of power politics and the idea of menstrual do’s and don’ts as a tool for exercising control over women. The institutionalization of the taboo, the group opined, would not be possible without equal participation of women in maintaining the acceptance and furtherance of the power politics over women, their minds and bodies. We also discussed the work of various groups for a more inclusive attempt to change perceptions around these taboos, awareness about menstrual hygiene and more sustainable ways towards handling menstrual discharge.
Gradually, the discussions paved way for more unspoken issues such as:
Post the debatathon, what stayed with me was also the ‘democratic’ approach used to hold the workshop and arrive at decisions. From rules to finalization of predominant themes the group would be debating on the second day, the participants made all the key decisions themselves, while using the guidance of the organizing team.
When young people are so passionate about creating a better world, we cannot let them down – let’s make sure we #LeaveNoGirlBehind! 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.