Empowering Girls in Mumbai and Delhi – on Safety and Storytelling


By Maya Bhardwaj

What happens when you get together a room of 35 giggly, enthusiastic, only Marathi-speaking teenage girls? Our Haiyya trainers recently found out.

Varsha Bansode, a past Haiyya Fellow on our first Public Safety campaign in Mumbai, is also an employee at the Akshara Centre in Mumbai, fighting for women’s rights. Akshara has been a partner with Haiyya in the past, as we have iterated together on our shared work around women’s safety and women’s rights, and use a similar framework of community organizing to develop leaders – in Akshara’s case, mostly women from lower socio-economic backgrounds – who champion causes in their communities.

Akshara is currently running a program called the Empowering Girls Project, where girls from low socio-economic backgrounds with learn the financial, educational, and life skills to graduate from higher education and navigate life as a self-sufficient woman. When we talked to Varsha about how she came to Haiyya and Akshara, she told us that she herself was no stranger to the struggles the girls from the Empowering Girls Project felt in charting their own course. Recounting her story, she said, “while my parents wanted me to take up nursing courses, I never wanted to pursue my career in it and I didn’t feel the inspiration or encouragement from my parents that I needed. I wanted to do something by which I could earn my own freedom. That led me to Akshara – and later, to Haiyya.”

Remembering the skills in leadership, teamwork, and communication she built as a Haiyya Fellow, Varsha decided to reach out to Haiyya to ask them to run a training for the Empowering Girls Project on working in teams. As Varsha described, “Haiyya helped me understand my individual power to develop my role in the community. Without understanding of community issues, we cannot work for community development or growth.” When our Organizer and Trainer Natasha heard about the opportunity, she knew it was a perfect one. “I was really excited to bring what I’ve learned from Haiyya about building leaders in our community through action to these girls, who have probably never thought about teamwork as a core component of leadership before. How could I say no?”

So on a Saturday morning, Natasha headed over to Akshara’s office in Elphinstone Road, armed with chart paper, markers, and handouts. Natasha planned to focus on working with the girls on communications skills and how to use their own stories to motivate others, how to build strong relationships and strong teams, and how to manage groups effectively. While the girls were initially shy, as Natasha worked with them, “they began to get really into telling their stories and using communications norms. They were all snapping for each other to show that they liked the stories, and they even started holding up their hands when someone was talking too quickly in Marathi!”

After many games of roleplaying and developing effective questions to bring people into an organization, it was time to say goodbye. As Natasha conducted the evaluation, the girls all mentioned that they loved the energy of the training – and that they now felt much more confident to use their own reflections and experiences to facilitate teamwork. As Natasha recounted her own pluses, deltas, and learnings in Haiyya’s format of evaluation, she told the girls about our upcoming work in Delhi on public safety – where women will be learning skills like we taught in the Empowering Girls training to build community teams fighting for safer public spaces for women. As soon as the Akshara girls found out, they wanted to get involved!

For us at Haiyya, this was an illustration of the power of really listening to the people with whom we work. Anyone can learn the skills it takes to make Delhi safer, or make Mumbai cleaner – we just have to listen deeply to what they want to learn and find out what motivates us, together. Right now, our organizers for Women’s Safety in Delhi are building relationships and growing strong teams – just like the girls at Akshara – by listening deeply to the issues that these citizens have, and figuring out how they enable each other to make a difference. And just like Natasha figured out how to motivate our friends at Akshara, our Delhi team is figuring out what works best to fight for what’s right, and training their teams on how to use these tactics as well. Whether we hear hope, or anger, or determination from our supporters, we have to remember to remain committed and enthusiastic about our work and to use our own stories not to be heard, but to listen to the stories of others.

Think you want to go through a training with Haiyya in Mumbai, or want to get involved in the early stages of our Women’s Safety campaign in Delhi? Head to www.haiyya.in to find out how. And stay tuned for more updates!


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