BY ANDREW DUBOCK
“I wish I was a boy.” Akansha’s words stuck in my head, as I grappled with the question: ‘how could any girl think like this?’
Yet Akansha’s thoughts are not isolated – according to a survey by the government’s Ministry of Women and Child Development, almost half of girls in India have the same feelings. Cultural attitudes and tradition mean sons are more highly valued than daughters in many families.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Akansha’s outlook on life is slowly changing as she takes part in the Dare to be Different mentoring course, run by Viva Himalaya Network at her school in Dehradun. She told me that she is on a journey of discovering her identity and understanding her purpose.
“I have no parents, so I live here in the school’s hostel and stay with an aunt and grandmother during holidays. Before the mentoring, I didn’t feel as if I had any family, but now I feel that God is with me.
“I used to unnecessarily start fights with people, but now I have stopped that and, thanks to the course, I am choosing friends carefully.”
She added, “My friends ask me, ‘why have you changed so much?’ and I have told them about the mentoring that Viva has been doing here, and how it has been changing my life tremendously.”
Akansha’s beaming smile tells a story of transformation and it’s the same from all the girls I meet at New Life Centre School, which strives to make girls equal in everything it does.
Confidence bursts out from her friend Mahi, who told me, “People think girls are not capable and that boys are better at studies, but girls are not less than anyone else!
“I used to be a backbencher, and didn’t focus on my studies. But now I sit in the first seat so I can concentrate. I grab every opportunity in life. I want to be a dancer or an actor when I’m older.”
Their mentor Renuka (right) explained to me how she had been using the Dare to be Different material for eight months at the school. “I have seen a lot of changes – they are feeling confident and are doing stage performances. There are many girls whose friends were older than them, so they were adopting bad habits from them. The training helps the girls to choose friends.”
“People always see boys as better than girls. I want there to be equality, and for girls to be able to make their own decisions like boys.”
In total, 120 girls in six schools are being supported by the training in Dehradun – a city in north India where there is clear gender discrimination borne out by the fact that the 873 girls per 1,000 boys ratio is lower than the national average.
Located in the hills that surround the city, Dehradun Public School is a place for children to learn and thrive. Yet, I discover the joy and laughter on girls’ faces mask their challenges at home and in wider society – reasons why Dare to be Different is so crucial.
“As a girl I cannot share my thoughts; it is difficult for me,” says Rupa. “If I make unhealthy friendships with boys people will think badly and talk about me.
“Before the course, I used to make anybody my friend but now I know how to choose friends. I have developed my thinking about who is a good friend and who is a bad friend.
“I have gained confidence. After the mentoring I can talk and discuss things with my parents and they understand my problems.”
Priska, the girls’ mentor (right) told me: “This programme is good for the girls in our school so that they may know the love of God. We teach that everyone is unique and has their own part for their schools and for their society.
“After the mentoring, girls are more open to me and coming with their problems and issues. I know one girl who is a slow learner in her studies, and low in her self-esteem, but after mentoring her she can learn fast, and knows ‘I can do this and respect myself’.
“I want to see girls of our cities to understand that they are unique and respect themselves, and they can impart this on their family, on their children, when they grow up, after marriage. This is my dream!”
After spending time visiting schools in Dehradun that value and empower their female students, and seeing for myself girls growing in confidence and self-esteem, I am hopeful that Indian society might be more gender balanced in future.
There is, of course, a long way still to go to change attitudes and practices, but I believe Viva’s contribution to the journey, through Dare to be Different and other girl-focused programmes, is significant.
“I’m proud to be a girl” – now there’s something I’d love to hear Akansha and her classmates say in the future.
WATCH THIS SHORT VIDEO ABOUT THE SCHOOLS’ MENTORING PROGRAMME IN DEHRADUN.
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