FEMALE EMPOWERMENT IN INDIA
MEET RITU. SHE’S 16 AND LIVES IN THE BEAUTIFUL VILLAGE OF NARAYANPUR IN UTTAR PRADESH’S MIRZAPUR DISTRICT, INDIA, WITH HER PARENTS AND TWO OTHER SIBLINGS. DESPITE THE PICTURESQUE BEAUTY OF THE VILLAGE, IT HIDES WITHIN IT AN UGLY TRUTH THAT CAN SOMETIMES CAUSE RITU TO CRY HERSELF TO SLEEP.
Being a teenager is tough for girls all over the world: their bodies are changing and they feel especially self-conscious. Ritu knows this only too well, but there’s an extra emotional trauma she has to experience – she has to go to the toilet in the open.
A simple nature’s call for Ritu means a 30-minute round trip that can often end in severe emotional trauma. On a good day, she only has to put up with lewd remarks from local boys. On another day, a boy could grab her hand and tease her while she is forced to hold her urine. But much worse has occurred. Once, a man knowingly tried to obstruct her. “I asked him to stop but he continued walking towards me. I had to run home immediately with my clothes soiled. I was so disturbed that I cried that entire night,” she says.
Ritu and her friends even face these comments in the safety of their village. “We take a bath at the hand-pump and then walk back home wet to change our clothes,” says Saraswati, a friend of Ritu who adds that boys sit nearby to watch them bathe. “They even whistle and shout things like ‘Aaj toh Bipasha lag rahi ha’ (You are looking hot today).”
Saraswati explains problems are inflated during monsoon and harvest seasons, or when girls are on their period. “With boys watching, we can’t wash properly. This leads to health problems. We even avoid drinking and eat less so we don’t have to go to the toilet in the middle of the day.”
One billion people in the world today still do not have access to basic sanitation, meaning girls are forced to relieve themselves in the open. This means they risk fear, shame, rape and health problems. These health problems result in girls missing school, affecting their education and future.
Thankfully, something is being done about this. In the neighbouring village of Ramapur, UNICEF has funded an Adolescence Girls Empowerment Project. Monthly sessions are held to teach girls to express themselves, educate them on their rights and discuss ways to solve each other’s problems.
Project manager Vijay Pandey states: “Earlier, these girls could hardly speak two words. But today they are learning to express themselves through stories and pictures. Expression is the first step towards empowerment. It is crucial for them to demand what they want and report when something wrong happens. We need to make sure that they don’t stay silent.”
Last July, when a senior bureaucrat of the Uttar Pradesh government came to visit the village, around 21 girls barged into the meeting demanding sanitation facilities to be built. “The construction of toilets has begun and the village Pradhan has been ordered to begin construction within one month,” smiles one of the girls.
UNICEF and Domestos are working together to help young girls grow up healthy and confident, and to stay in school through UNICEF’s global sanitation programme. Since the programme started four years ago, more than 69,000 students have benefited from sanitation and hygiene education programmes in 260 schools, meaning more confident young girls who do not have to live in fear.
[names have been changed to protect identities]