When I was assigned to work at a healthcare organization, I pictured myself working in health camps in remote areas. Damn, I was so wrong and ignorant. As I started getting familiar with the daily activities and various initiatives of my host organization, Swasthya Swaraj, I realized that it is an overall involvement in diverse fields apart from healthcare which includes education, empowerment and livelihood. The Tulasi program caught my attention, the core objective of which is to empower tribal adolescent and teenage girls by improving their reproductive health in targeted villages. I feel this program forms the backbone of Swasthya Swaraj, as empowerment of women is one of the most important prerequisites for improving health outcomes in the community (Alsop, Bertelsen and Holland, 2006).
About the program
In the Tulasi programme, the project coordinator goes to every village and facilitates all the local girls aged from 14 to18 years to form a “Tulasi club”. This club becomes a space for the tribal girls to share their experiences, learn about self-sufficiency, form an open communication, know the importance of formal education and reproductive health. The sessions usually last for 2 days and usually involve focus group discussions. Then, there are quarterly Tulasi club meetings at the nearest health center. The program coordinator has to visit around 40 villages and invite the girls to attend the meeting. Typically, around 60% girls show up.
Ms. Deepa, who has more than 10 years of experience in women’s health and empowerment in the tribal regions of Odisha, is the program coordinator. On request, she allowed me to attend one of the quarterly meetings, despite the fact that the girls would be reluctant to open up in front of a man. However, they were relieved when they were told that I don’t speak or understand their language. It was one of those rare occasions where not knowing the language was helpful. While I had attended a few workshops on women empowerment with sex workers in UK, this program was very intriguing and gave me a new perspective about the issues of tribal women in India.
A number of topics are covered during the 2 day session. Here, I will mention the ones I found to be most effective:
When Ms. Deepa asked the girls about their ambitions in life, they all said they want to be an adult, get married, have kids and spend the rest of their lives taking care for their families. The concept of individualism and self-sufficient living is almost non-existent. While I’m nobody to comment on their choices, the tribal women are often helpless when issues of physical abuse or abandonment arise. To make matters worse, the villagers start ostracizing these women if any such incident happens, which sometimes leads them to depression or an urge to commit suicide.
These girls are less likely to complete their formal education as compared to their male counterparts. The enrollment rate of girls in schools is always lower than boys. There is a limited space for them to develop essential skills of critical thinking, self-sufficiency, and freedom for choice (Mishra, 2015). To counter these cultural notions, Deepa uses various methods like group activities, movie screenings and providing a safe space for girls to speak up. She also gives examples of prominent female leaders or sportswomen who come from similar tribal backgrounds, so that it instills them with motivation and determination. These approaches are effective as the girls are extremely submissive, have low levels of self-esteem and hesitant to discuss their problems in a group.
One of the activities that stayed with me was where Deepa showed them a mirror, and each girl was asked to look into it and say, “Today I’m looking beautiful”. The girls were initially reluctant to say it out loud but eventually they became confident and enjoyed saying the phrase out loud.
The girls usually help their mother in farming, cooking and taking care of other household chores. When it comes to leisure, they engage themselves in tribal dance during festivals. Apart from this, they have nothing much to do. They don’t have access to television or any other form of entertainment unlike their contemporary peers in urban areas.
One of the objectives of the Tulasi program is to encourage the girls to open up and bond with girls from other villages. In one of the activities, they are divided into smaller groups and are taught simple games to encourage group participation. They also perform local dance and sing songs. It’s a delight to watch the performance with perfect coordination, without any rehearsal. At the end, they leave having made new friends.
C. Family Planning
Two of the major issues affecting this region are multiple pregnancies and gender disparities due to strong preference for a male child. It’s shocking to see that young mothers want to conceive more children so that at least a few of them would survive (Green, 2013). Of those who survive, the mothers prefer a boy. When Deepa asked the young girls whether they would want a daughter, they denied and admitted that a son would be better.
While a lot of discussions have been done to encourage these girls to change their perceptions, Deepa stressed that this behavior change is not easy, and could take several years. The holistic situation of the community, in terms of hunger and poverty need to improve.
As someone with no clue about empowerment among tribal girls, the sessions I attended have been enlightening. Encouraging new friendships are essential to bond, develop a sense of sisterhood and eventually form support groups among themselves. Secondly, while efforts should be made to preserve the local culture, certain taboos and behaviors will have to change, the most predominant of which being a preference for a male child and poor family planning in the region. Stories of prominent female personalities are powerful tools for inspiring these young girls to achieve adequate education, self-sufficiency, and a freedom of expression.
- Alsop R, M Bertelsen, and J Holland (2006) Empowerment in Practice: From Analysis to Implementation. The World Bank. Washington D.C.
- Green, D. (2013) Pakistan’s Lady Health Workers – empowerment + healthcare. Blog. http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=15388
- MISHRA, L. (2015). Implementing Peace Education In Secondary Schools Of Odisha: Perception Of Stake Holders. Sakarya University Journal of Education, 5(2), p.47.