On January 21, just as the sunlight was starting to achieve a diffused effect in the evening sky, the people of Bhim Nagar checked all chores off their lists, hurriedly making their way to the Buddh Vihar (community centre). Perched atop a hillock, the Buddh Vihar in Bhoiwada’s Bhim Nagar is a modestly sized room, its walls adorned by portraits of Savitribai Phule and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.
Slowly the centre started to fill up, one-half of the room eagerly occupied by mothers with infants on their hips, a few women with wallets and handkerchiefs clutched in their hands, and a handful men. The other half was hijacked by girls – a group of sprightly 11-21-year-olds, as they shuffled chaotically, the older bunch instructing the younger ones, trying to duck the microphone suspended from the roof.
Finally, the proverbial curtains were drawn open. The younger lot among the group, 11-14-year-olds, stood facing the audience, its numbers now increasing as people teemed outside, some standing on their toes, trying to catch a glimpse of the scene inside. It seemed unusual to see so many people jostling each other to participate in the celebrations of 16 girls who had completed the Journey Towards Dignity programme and were about to talk about education as their right, sexual health, and abuse.
Taking turns, the girls shared their learning, their presentation dominated by the sheer excitement on their faces and the josh in their voices. It was an unspoken declaration, it screamed “Yes, we know about menstruation, child sexual abuse, and good dietary practices!” as they performed their acts focussing on these topics.
When the older batch aged 15-21 came on, a certain seriousness filled the air; the applause died down. Two girls delivered emotionally charged monologues – one spoke about experiencing abuse perpetrated by her own uncle, the other about dealing with the first day of her period. A play became the device through which the audience witnessed the tragedies of a grandmother whose flashbacks showed gender-biases in their full glory, affecting every aspect of her life.
The rawness and power of each performance made it evident that the girls were drawing from a pool of shared grief, a pool made up of all the injustices that they had experienced in their own lives, of the punishments meted out to them for being born as the ‘the weaker sex’ while they exposed the weaknesses of the society.
That evening, the limitations of the centre’s space became a boon as there was no escape for emotions, of sentiments that are usually buried under layers of austerity. Her voice shaky with emotion, the mother of one of the girls said, “I did not have faith in my daughter to speak the way she did today, I am so proud of her, she has shown a lot of courage”. As other parents nodded in agreement, the girls grinned, knowing that they had seized the day. A small victory signalling the bigger wins that awaited them.