As the sun sets over the holy bank of river Narmada, sounds of religious chant echoes in the entire tehsil of Handiya. Shivani, a 17 year old Changeloomer welcomed us to her grandparents’ house in Handiya. She had been staying there for two years now. “It is because of my anger issues that I landed up in Handiya. My parents stay in Khirkiya and they wanted me to get married because I had left my studies. Fortunately, I got to know about Changelooms and it inspired me to join school again.” Currently, Shivani is studying in 9th standard in Handiya
Panting after a long walk, Yogita joins us after a short while and complaints about her excessive workload. Her Village Level Organization bagged the project of stitching uniforms for all the government schools of Harda district and she is travelling to remote jungles for delivering the uniforms.
“I didn’t know before that I was a leader and capable of doing so much. This one year was an important turning point for me. I gradually climbed higher in the Self-Help Group leadership ladder: first I became the chairperson of Village Level Organization and then I got selected as the Chairperson of Cluster Level Federation as well as the Secretary of District level Federation.”
Yogita grew up in Seoni Malwa, Hoshangabad and was married at a very young age by her family. “I received a scholarship award in 12th standard and I used that money to take admission in college without telling my parents. Fortunately, I got a husband who allowed me to study and so I completed my graduation and my post graduation.”
Even after a stark difference in the age of Yogita and Shivani, they have united on a single goal. Under their Changelooms initiative, Yogita and Shivani are motivating women from self-help groups (SHGs) to construct their own identities and take leadership for the rights of children and adolescent girls. “In this course of one-year, we worked with women from Self-Help Groups as well as with children and pregnant/feeding women from two Anganwadis. We took sessions on the need for proper nutrition for both mother and child and told them that extreme situations can be avoided if the child is given utmost attention for one year.” explains Yogita.
“In addition to this, we have a group of five girls who meet regularly and try to create a safe space where they can talk about discrimination at home, about menstrual hygiene and also about Anganwadi schemes for adolescent girls.” continues Shivani.
Through their efforts, they were able to admit ten malnourished children in NRC and four children who were in yellow zone have already entered the green zone. “Initially we organized a week-long campaign on the importance of breastfeeding and the turnout was wonderful. We took a community meeting with eighty women from SHGs of Handiya on the importance of breastfeeding for a newborn child and the diseases which can be prevented if the mother feeds the child regularly for at least six months. These eighty women organized a day-long rally in Handiya on the importance of breastfeeding and post that, they took meetings on the same with other women in their respective colonies.” says Yogita with extreme pride.
The project has brought about a crucial change in the structures of SHG: They are no longer merely financial or livelihood groups. They are now becoming more aware about their social realities and taking action to bring about social change. “I can cite multiple changes in the attitude of SHG women. I have seen their priorities change over time. Now, they give more importance to the needs of their children, especially their right to play and right to education.” acknowledges Yogita.
Shivani admits that her sessions with girls have also brought about some positive results. “I tell them that if they keep fear in their heart, they will never be able to go out or do anything for themselves. This has actually motivated one of the girls to challenger herself and take up SHG audit work in the village.”
On reflecting upon her struggles from the family, Shivani acknowledges that her their perspective has also changed positively over time as they have started giving her more freedom. Yogita nods in agreement and shares while laughing, “I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I have changed my husband and so my world has definitely changed.”
“I used to think that it is normal for women to listen to the wishes of their husbands and act that way. Like my husband used to ask me to not do something or not talk to other men and I followed that. However, when I attended the sessions on Constitution and on Gender, I realized that it is not true. I used to come back home and tell him that our constitution has granted equal rights to both men and women. Now, we talk about equality. He helps me in cleaning the house, in taking care of our children and ensues that I get more freedom to do my work.”
Yogita believes that her communication skills have seen a maximum shift in the past one-year. “I used to think that people are stupid. And that is because I never listened to them or tried to empathize with them. I always gave importance to my words and opinions. But now, I listen intently before speaking.”
When I ask them about their future plans, Shivani shrugs her shoulders and replies, “As of now, I want to continue my studies. Along with that, I would want to continue working on the issue of menstruation with girls.” Yogita adds, “I think the plan is not fully set. But yes, wherever I go, I would carry the issue of children’s right to health with me, be it in an event or a family function. Moreover, I think there is a dire need to work with girls on the issue of menstruation as village dwellers are clueless about it.”