Deepa and Neelam are 16-year-old girls from Mahoba, Uttar Pradesh, and Itkori, Jharkhand. They are both part of the Kishori Manch set up by their respective local organisations—Gramonnati Sansthan and Mahila Mandal—as part of CREA’s Count Me IN! programme. In their villages, girls were rarely educated beyond eighth standard, after which they were made to be home and take care of domestic chores. After their association with the organisations, the girls have managed to change this. Girls are allowed to study further, even if it means that they have to go to a school far away from their village. Deepa and Neelam are now in the 10th standard and both plan to go to college. They (and a number of other young girls from their villages) cycle to and from school each day.
The girls feel that the association of their organisations with the Count Me IN! programme has led to a huge change in their lives. They have got the opportunity to step out of the house and participate in a number of activities, such as sports, street plays, school competitions, and the Truck Yatra (part of the Count Me IN: Campaign Against Son Preference). The Count Me IN! programme has given them a chance to travel to different villages and meet other girls like themselves, to become part of leading peer groups for causes such as violence against women, and to be part of campaigns against son preference and those targeting marginalised girls and women.
“What I liked the most [about this programme] was that the girls also started getting her rights”, says Neelam. She adds that often, parents are “misled” by others in the community to impose restrictions on girls, such as not allowing girls to step out of the house in the evenings. When Neelam faced this discrimination at home, she told her mother, “...a son is given milk and bread, and the daughter is given stale rice...why would you discriminate between a son and a daughter? Can a daughter not do what a son can? A son has two hands, two feet, two ears, and two eyes, and so do I! So, if a boy can work, why not a girl?” Earlier, girls felt scared and insecure about leaving their house in the evening. They are now confident young women, who “...today feel that I can also move ahead, and I want to move ahead. I want it! I do not want to stop or look back; I just want to move ahead!”
Deepa has more than proven this. Her parents found a match for her and wanted her to get married. But, she wanted to study further and get married only after she is 18 years old. She discussed this with her parents, but they did not agree. So, Deepa decided to go on a hunger strike. She did not eat anything for three days, till her parents gave in. The result was that her parents convinced the prospective bridegroom and his family that while the engagement would take place at that time, the marriage would happen only after two years, when Deepa completes her high school and reaches the legal age of marriage. And, in this protest, Deepa was supported not just by her friends, but also by her teachers and other members of the community.
It is evident that the impact of the Count Me IN! programme has permeated through the communities and has influenced not just the young girls, but also other key stakeholders. This has led to the initiation of CREA’s It’s My Body programme, which uses sports to mobilise adolescent girls to resist violence by developing their ideas around bodily autonomy and their sexual and reproductive health and rights.