These groups are where young women learn their rights, find their voice, air grievances, discover their selfhood and aspirations.

Young women sitting on a ledge with the view of the skyline talking to each
news Women's empowerment Wednesday, January 13, 2021 - 18:56

In rural areas in Telangana, when one talks about ‘sangams’ (collectives or groups) these are usually assumed to be microcredit self-help groups (SHG) of women. There have also been many government and non-government efforts towards working with women’s groups/mahila sangathans/mahila mandals with a broader agenda of women’s empowerment. However, most of these have usually focussed on married women. The other kind of ‘sangam’ that rural Telangana is familiar with is the youth groups – almost every village has one or more youth groups who other than their own activities participate as volunteers in government programmes, organise festivals (Ganesh pooja) and so on. These youth groups have an exclusively male membership. There are no such collective spaces that are available for young women, often the most invisible group in a village.

As part of a study on women’s employment opportunities we spoke to young women in the age group of 15-29 who were studying in college or university in Vikarabad and Gadwal districts in Telangana. During the course of our interactions many of them told us that they are not part of any yuva (youth) or women's groups. While usually there were no groups for them, many of them are now part of Kishori Balika Sangams and gender committees whose formation has been facilitated by the M.V.Foundation (MVF), an NGO that works on child rights issues

In our interactions with these young women, we realised the potential that such groups have towards giving a voice and support for this otherwise neglected group. Women we spoke to told us that they are not allowed to go outside and play after they are about 14-15 years old. Those who are not part of these groups said that after college hours, they sit khaali and get bored! It’s only on some special occasions, with a lot of planning and prior permission, that they are able to go out to meet their friends socially. Otherwise right after their college at 4pm, they take the bus and directly come home. Lakshmi says, “Boys mostly go out to play and roam around with their friends on the bike. Women don’t play or go out like that. Everything is on mobile only. That’s the only way we get to pass time. And there is TV. They won't send us for playing outside, so we watch TV.” 

Creating spaces for young women

The main objective of the M.V.Foundation facilitated groups are to create girl-friendly spaces where young women learn their rights, find their voice, air grievances, discover their selfhood and aspirations. Women who are part of these sangams conduct their meetings either in the premises of the gram panchayat, local school, the Anganwadi centre or even a private building depending on whose support they are able to get. Women who are part of this meet once a week and less frequently during times of examinations, festivities, monsoons or severe summer.

These groups are very different from both SHGs and yuva sangams because these groups are formed by, for and led by young women themselves. They come together to discuss their lives, look into their shared experiences of injustice and oppressions, become aware about their surroundings and also to just ‘chill’. Women with the support of MVF run reading centers, subscribe to newspapers, buy books for general reading, hold reading sessions and discuss current issues. They also prepare wall magazines to express their opinions and display them at a public space. They told us that they themselves demanded for sports equipment after which carrom boards, chess, badminton kits etc were made available to them. Many of them also encourage parents of their neighbourhood to send their daughters to play and participate in these group activities. Parents often resist and tell them that they have become “too old” to play. However, they collectively persuade the parents until they agree. 

Participation is a political act

While this does sound trivial, for these young women who step out of their house, leaving behind household chores, demanding to play and do ‘time pass’, just participating in these groups itself becomes a political act. In these groups, they see an opportunity to think just about themselves and also to make associations with those outside prescribed kinship networks. They recognise the ideology that legitimises male domination and understanding how it perpetuates their oppression. From the narratives of the women we spoke to it emerged clearly that while this process can be facilitated, it cannot be bestowed or “given” to women. They themselves need to claim it. MVF recognizes this and gives them the tools and support required to reflect, analyse and act collectively. 

Kavita for instance learnt about these groups while she was pursuing her undergraduate degree when she attended one of the group workshops in Hyderabad. She says, “That is when I learnt about the society. Before that I knew only my village and my college. After that, I learnt what a society is. (Appudey naaku society gurunchi telsindi).” In the workshop, they discussed gender stereotypes, challenges in continuing higher education, child marriages and so on. They also developed a street play on these issues. Kavita says she went back to her village and performed the street play in the school and in the community, and formed a group and committee. Because of that she says, “Many children have developed a lot in our village. They didn't have any courage! Now because of our meetings, they will readily talk anywhere.” 

Gender committees are another form of groups facilitated by MVF at the school level. Two women and two boys from each class (6-10) are part of this committee. Each committee is supported by a female teacher. These gender committees hold review meetings every fortnight at school where they discuss gender issues like bias from the staff and discriminations faced by the women, issues related to child marriages and school dropouts. When Swati (now 18) was in school, she was a leader in one such committee. Once she passed out of school, she continued to attend the meetings at the village and also other exposure visits conducted by MVF. She says that she enjoys the meetings in Vikarabad since they talk a lot about equality. During one such meeting, Swati says that she was thinking about housework. She recalls, “My sister and I do all the housework. My younger brother doesn't do anything (Intlo ani pani nenu inka akka chestamu. Tammudu emi cheyadu). We pick up plates and wash them, brother doesn’t do this. So, I told Amma about this who apparently responded saying they are boys, they won’t do all this. You are women, that's why you should do it (Vaalu abbaylu, vaallu em cheyaru. meeru aada pillalu, anduke cheyyali!).” Swati then told her mother to not talk like that as they both are equal. Although her mother didn’t see her point, she proudly says, “At least I tried”. She adds, “Parents don’t understand all this with clarity. This is because they are from another generation. They haven't studied and gone for such meetings so they believe in all this. That is why Amma scolded me that time!” A close examination of these everyday life instances shared with us reiterate how both power and agency operate in the most mundane contexts, and how young women like Swati and Kavita when facilitated to reflect, engage with power structures. 

In these meetings, the women bring up specific cases of child abuse; child marriage and gender discrimination, sexual harassment and stalking, school dropouts – they share experiences and work out plans to resolve these issues in consultation with MVF staff as well as members of Child Rights Protection Forums.They have many plans for the future and for recruiting more women into their committees. They are no less than the other ‘youth’ groups in the village now. Maybe, we can make a beginning this year to acknowledge that ‘youth’ in our country include women and other genders. Lessons from the experiences of various grassroots organisations such as the M.V.Foundation and its mahila youth groups can inform engendering youth policies towards building a more equitable society.

Diksha Shriyan is an Independent Researcher and Dipa Sinha is faculty at Ambedkar University, Delhi and member of the M.V.Foundation Trust Board.

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