My work in process documentation often involves listening to multiple versions of the same events. What people say, what strikes them, how they say it and even what they leave out – each of these strands is important and tells its own story. And I have learnt to accept that I hear and understand through the prism of my own lived experiences. That adds another dimension! Linking cause and effect is not always easy. In fact, determining which actor and which action/s led to a ‘success’ is rarely a straightforward affair.
Recently, I spoke to several people who played a part in preventing (or rather postponing) a child marriage. There was the school principal who spoke to the girl’s father. There was the father who stated that he had decided to act on his own (He did not mention the principal till it was explicitly brought up. Even then, he stressed that he had acted on his own accord). And then there was the seventeen year old girl. She had gone willingly with the man who had expressed interest in her. This was an accepted custom in her community. She now agreed that child marriage was not a good idea. She seemed more worried about the prospect of her parents being in jail rather than the adverse health consequences of child marriages, early pregnancies and the rest that followed. So, who and what specifically had helped prevent the child marriage? I was unsure.
I wasn’t even sure if this could be counted as a ‘success story’. Since the girl had come back, life had not been easy. She became irregular in school and finally dropped out. She hadn’t been sure about how the others in the school would react. She, anyways, did not have many friends in school. Meanwhile, a dearly loved niece fell into a pond while playing. The child, barely three years old, drowned and died. As the mother recounted this, the girl sat with her head lowered. She wiped tears that came streaming down her face. She looked up and then she looked away. We all fell silent. That sense of loss and grief filled up all the spaces in that courtyard where we all sat under the fading daylight.
Given a chance would the girl choose to not wait for a year and elope to marry? Possibly. It would take her away from her present that seemed overwhelming and unhappy and restrictive (I got the feeling that the father was a dominant figure who did not take dissent well.)
And I couldn’t frame this as a success story.
The five girls waited patiently as I finished another interview. Then, it was their turn. I explained the objective of the interaction – this was about capturing their experiences of returning to school for a case study document. Basically, these girls were part of groups (Kishori Samooh) constituted through the government’s SABLA scheme (Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls). Helping girls who had dropped out to return to formal schooling was one of the components of this scheme. The document was being prepared under a pilot project wherein Child In Need Institute (a reputed not for profit organisation) was assisting the state departments (Departments of Child Development and Women Development and Social Welfare, Government of West Bengal, India) in rolling out the scheme across 18 blocks in 6 districts of West Bengal. Ford Foundation had provided additional support.
The girls spoke about the circumstances that had conspired against them. Absent fathers, mothers trying to run the families by doing whatever they could, or both parents struggling with low paying jobs. Two of the girls worked as domestic maids themselves while the other three stayed at home, helping with household work. All of them had been out of school for an average of about three years. They had not really expected much when they had joined the girls’ groups. Then, the Anganwadi Workers (grassroots government functionary) and CINI staffs helped them in rejoining school in classes VI-VIII. The two girls who worked as maids negotiated timings with their employers so that they could attend classes. This was a significant achievement in itself.
Getting back into the classroom was half the battle. The girls felt uncomfortable as they were among the oldest in their classes. Some of their classmates didn’t make it easy for them either. Comments and taunts sometimes hung in the air, sometimes the echoes followed them even after they left school. But then there were also the few that befriended them. The relationship with the teachers remained complicated as well, sometimes affected by their own lack of confidence in approaching them with doubts or requests for help.
Two girls mentioned another challenge. There were a couple of days when they had been unable to board any of the buses that would take them to school. As the buses slowed down at the stop, the two would get ready to get on. Each time, the conductor would spot them and say that the bus was full and they should take the next one. The girls would be left standing as the buses would fill up with other passengers and leave. The two would finally trudge back home. No school that day. Why did they think this happened? “Maybe because we as students can give less fare and the conductors don’t want that” is the response. Another girl, whose financial situation was comparatively better than these two and this was reflected in her clothing and appearance, shared that this had never happened to her.
In the midst of all these challenges and an uncertain future, the urge to prove themselves now in the classrooms was unmistakable. “I may take more time. But I can also do it,” stated one with quiet confidence as others around her nodded in agreement.
I used to visit a children’s home as a student social worker along with another batch mate. Two brothers caught our eye. The elder one was reserved, but with a heart warming smile. He was also fiercely protective of his younger and definitely more mischievous brother. The older, let’s call him Michael, was in Class VI. The younger (say – David) was in Class IV. It was only when we saw their case files that we realised the horrors that they had dealt with. They had seen their father kill their mother in a drunken fit. The two had escaped to a big city and found work at a tea stall. They were harassed by the owner. Sexual abuse was also suspected.
They had been in the home for a couple of years when we met them. By then, they had settled into a routine. Then, we found Michael behaving a little differently. He became more reserved, more moody. Was it just adolescence or something else? We were told to talk to him.
Gradually, he opened up. He had been rescued by a priest. This Father was an important role model for him. In fact, he wanted to grow up and become a Father himself. So what was the problem, we asked. Well, he liked a girl who was in Class V. He wanted to speak to her, be friends with her. It could even lead to something serious, he thought. But then, weren’t priests supposed to stay bachelors? So, if he started talking to her, could he, even then, become a priest later? We assured him that there was nothing wrong in talking to the girl, in being friends with her. He did not have to take a decision about priesthood right now. That could, and should, wait. He should see how he feels and what he wants when he is in Class X. That will help him take a decision. That shy, heart warming smile was back and we were grinning back at him.