Archive | March 2014

Field and my fielding

People Sabha

It’s been over two months that I joined Haiyya and undoubtedly my best moments here have been on the field. I cannot just call it field so further when I say field, its way bigger than what this word could literally mean. It’s life out there, life with invigorating and unbelievable experiences. I have a lot to write which I might not be able to cover in this single piece but at least I should start somewhere on how the “life of field” has been for all of us to know.

Weeks at a stretch I have been on the field, interacting with diverse age groups, genders, socio-economic backgrounds. Simply put, I am out of my shell exploring the realities that makes our world the way it is. Recalling my very initial days on the field, I smile at myself when one of the ladies in the community asked me why am I wearing jeans and a t-shirt, shouldn’t I be wearing salwar kurtas if I work for an NGO; I knew exactly where this stereotype was coming from and I got down to talking to her about it. She shared with me how she has never worn jeans and how she can never even imagine to; it’s a taboo in their family and asserts her family belief that it is a western influence that might corrupt the women of their society. Needless to say, I knew where this was coming from.

Every single day on the field has been a whirlwind of experiences, where you learn beyond what you already know and where you see reality like never before. All these days on the field, striving hard to make an initial engagement with the community, figuring alternatives once, twice and n number of times to effectively enter the community and start building relationships has been an immense challenge. It takes great amount of time and persistent efforts to build a personal identity in the community and be accepted as one of their own.

 Apart from being seeing around the field all the time and talking to whosoever I cross, it has been quite a task to figure out ways to actually talk to people who may not seem interested either; with a clear prospect ringing in my head that it isn’t about their interest to talk or not, it’s about their perspective that matters a lot to me and everyone has one. The voices of the community are something that I sleep and wake up to. Sometimes I am just unconsciously thinking and processing my field experiences. Experiences like:

  • Being ogled on the field; why does this young girl want to talk to us and then the sight of some men secretively checking their hair in the mirrors or whatever they find reflective in nature when I approach them and insist that this conversation is important
  • Being judged by people in the community that who on earth are you and why are you here
  • Hear people say that shut up and sit at home, it’s a man’s world, let it remain like that
  • Meet women who feel they have lost the battle to patriarchy and I shouldn’t try fighting it; it is a form of life and I need to come to terms with it and simply accept it

Now when I go to the field, I have young girls and women who wave out to me, offer me water, sit me down to talk about their personal experiences. I hear them talk about how unfair the world is to women and how they never felt like an equal gender no matter what the government said or the law exerted. The truth for them was that the reality was hard hitting and it always made them feel like a lesser gender and over the years of oppression at the hands of their own families, they actually began to feel like a lesser and a weaker gender unfortunately. The harrowing stories they have shared with me have been painful and I could clearly see it in their eyes and hear it in their quivering voice how much they wanted to be heard and how happy they were sitting here with me and sharing their soul. They were beginning to accept me as their own. They opened up more when I shared my personal experiences. Some women thought that these atrocities are only a governing part of the lives of lesser educated and lower socio-economic groups but when they heard me, they resonated with me that the social structures and cultural contexts of our patriarchal and regressive society has spared not many.

Women have shared with me their stories of endless years of abuse in the form of domestic violence which has been of all forms imaginable (yet unimaginable); emotional, physical, mental, sexual. I have interacted and fostered relationships with working women, domestic workers, factory workers, and young college going girls, men who have witnessed and aggravated violence against women knowingly and unknowingly, consciously and unconsciously. I have met men who have fumed at me for instigating women against them through this campaign, I have faced men who actually call me a frustrated woman avenging her dramatic past of rape or physical violence through this campaign; men who actually have no idea who I am, who have met me for the first time but still go onto rebuke. These experiences have only and only added to my strength and vigor to take this campaign forward as relentlessly possible. As much as those vicious glances and those hurtful statements prick me, they also grill me to not succumb to this.

The harsh reality is that all the women I have met till date have actually confirmed that at some point in their lives, they all have actually witnessed harassment. Despite the extremely diverse opinions of women I meet on the field, they all ring a common bell, a very strong one, that violence against women should be intolerable.

I also meet all these powerful women (haven’t met a lot of these men yet but I am sure they are out there) who have actually stood up against violence and paved their own ways out of it and are willing to go to any extent possible to ensure that we claim what is anyway rightfully ours and that is equality to all, irrespective of genders. These women have powerful stories of how they left their homes years back to claim their independence and live their lives the way they wanted to. These women are out there further backing us up and building a strong and undeniable sense of importance around this campaign.

All these experiences inspire and motivate me every single day on how important it is for us to stand up for what anyways is ours. When men never had to fight for their rights, then why are women doing that, it’s rightfully ours. But the reality is that culture and societal extremes have denied women this very basic right of being an equal. It’s time to turn things around because we clearly have had enough! Zor lagake haiyya!

Salini Sharma is the community leadership organizer on Haiyya’s campaign directed at reclaiming women’s equal access to public spaces; a right that is anyway and equally theirs. She is driven to make violence against women of all forms intolerable as clearly women have had enough! Zor lagake Haiyya!

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A Conversation with Nishant: Getting to Know Haiyya’s Citizenship Educator

by Syamala Krishnamsetty

This week we’ll be profiling Nishant Chavan, facilitator of our Citizen’s  Education Project.  Today I’ve decided to sit down with my coworker over Maharashtran thalis and learn a little more about who he is, why he joined Haiyya, and hear about what he thinks youngsters can do to be more civically engaged in their neighborhoods.

photo (2)

Syamala

Can you tell me a little about what your mindset was like when you graduated?

Nishant

I did my Bachelors in Botany.  But after that, I wanted to align myself with the medical field. I never wanted to leave Bombay.

But then I got in at the University of Pune – so every weekend I used to travel from Pune to Mumbai, and then go back Monday through Friday for lectures.  I did my Masters in Health Science there – I knew I wanted to be aligned with the medical field.

After that I worked for a public health NGO.  I joined as a researcher, and we were doing an evaluation of a project started by PATH.  They had been implementing a program at seven sites in rural Maharashtra, and four or five sites in Uttar Pradesh, and had just finished their third year.  When I joined, it was the fourth year – the year to do all the evaluation of the program.

That’s when I realized, traveling through these rural areas in Maharashtra, that people took public health seriously, but didn’t have the knowledge to act.

Syamala

So that’s why you moved to Teach for India?

Nishant

See, let me tell you a little bit about why I joined Teach for India.  I didn’t want to switch from public health to education.  But some of my experiences made me switch.  There was one strong case for me – over in Nagpur. I came to know a construction worker.  He was a BPL (Below Poverty Line) card holder, and if he had gone to a government hospital, he would have gotten his medicine for almost free.  He was suffering from TB.  But then he didn’t go to the government hospital.  He went to a private hospital.

People in India, they have this idea that government hospitals aren’t good.  To some extent it is true, but the medicines are the same.

He expired after three months.  The TB was in a secondary stage, and after he died, his family was sent his debt.  I don’t know if he could have been saved, but I know that he could not read or write, and if he had, he perhaps would have known he could have gone to a government hospital.  I’m not saying his life would have been saved, since he was in a late stage, but he would have had a chance, and have not been a burden on his family.

That’s why I joined Teach for India – I had to do something for the low income community to have a basic understanding – ABCs, math –  so they can get the information they need. And what I Iearned is that public health and education go hand in hand together.

Syamala

So why Haiyya?

Nishant

I joined Haiyya as a fellow, because I believed that students should know about their government.  I initially thought it was about making civics education more attractive, but then I saw that it was really about having a more action based civics program.  In the process, they can learn how a student can make a difference in the community.  They would develop leadership skills, because it takes a lot of courage to talk.

So what do we do if the government is supposed to do something, and the government isn’t doing it?

Syamala

Okay.  So you talked a lot about your professional life before coming to Haiyya.  But this desire to help people – it must have come from somewhere.  When was the first time you realized you wanted to help people?

Nishant

When I was in higher secondary school, there were many visually challenged students.  So we had this program to help them, and as I got involved, I became a very good reader and writer for them.  They would enter a class as regular students, but I would read their books and record cassettes for them to study.  Also, during exam time, I would write their answers for them.

That’s when I decided “Come on dude, you have to do something!”

Kandivali kids

Syamala

Cool.  So, what kind of challenges have you faced with this project?

Nishant

I’d say there are three things.  So much of what we’ve done is a pre pilot, but we have so much more to do, in more schools.  Some of the other schools we are going to are high income schools, and we have to identify how the needs are different, and take what we’ve learned from low income schools and use it to understand high income schools too.  But we have to understand the challenges are very different.

Second, it’s a volunteer driven model.  But in India, the word “citizenship,” and the word “democracy” . . .  is very high level.  Very much associated with authority.   People don’t think of themselves as agents for change.

The third thing: how to get an extra half hour in schools. Just getting extra time is a challenge, so we’re going to be pitching to school principals over the coming weeks to give us more time.

Syamala

So let me ask you this.  You’ve talked about teaching kids they have power.  You’ve worked in low incomes schools, and will be headed to high income schools.  So my question is: is it easier to convince high income kids that they have power than it is to convince low income kids?

Nishant

Don’t know, man.  I guess we’ll find out!

Syamala

What do you think Haiyya can do in the future to convince kids they have power?

Nishant

Right now, all these concepts have to be taught at a very early age.  The earlier you start, the better it is.

Let me tell you – when I was at the age of 18, my dad said “dude, you have to vote!” And I thought “what difference does one vote make?”  That’s what  I thought at the age of 18.

If we teach these kids early on how important their vote is, how to be a force in society . . . right now civics education is very good.  The curriculum is very good.  But the difference between civics and citizenship isn’t very clear.  And how do we implement a civics curriculum in a real way?

Syamala

What advice would you give to a young person out there who wants to make a difference in her community?

Nishant

Share, get more info, spread the word.  Read lots of newspapers.  Develop a curiosity in your mind.

Talk to your friends and your families.  A group discussion will lead to an idea on how to create change.  And when people are talking, you develop a will to make change happen.  Lead by example to others.  When people see you following a rule, or having a value, they will start to do the same.  Change won’t happen fast, but it will happen.  You have to be positive, and take a stand on things.

Syamala

Cool. Thank you Nishant!

What ideas do you have for kids to be more involved in creating change in their neighborhoods?