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The Pied Piper of Varanasi

As daylight appears across the quaint village of Manduwadih in Varanasi, one sees the rigmarole of the day begin with women getting up and cleaning, fetching water, and cooking for their families. The village sight starts to take a different turn as the day progresses, with women slowly retrieving inside and we see groups of callous young men enjoying their lives on motorcycles, retired older men smoking beedis on verandahs, and hard-working “proper” ones in their shops and farms.

Not ideal, one might argue, but common. In this village of 5000 people, a young teenage girl standing up for her right to live life on her own terms is unheard of; it’s uncommon, and hence dishonourable.

The quiet sixteen-year-old Julie who had spent her entire life there, determined to set the record straight for “dishonourable” girls in Manduwadih. And boy, did she succeed.

“Mujhe lagta tha ki zindagi mein ghar ke baahar ki bhi duniya hai jise main dekhna chahti hoon,” says the unfettered Julie, while candidly and excitedly narrating her story. Then only in Std. X in the local school, Julie had dreams of exploring the world that existed outside her house and her family of six brothers and parents. “Mujhe humesha se lagta tha ki ladkiyo ko bhi khul ke jeene ka haq hona chahiye. “Log kya kahenge” sirf hum hi se kyun kaha jata raha hai?”, she narrates.

The determined teenager started as a volunteer in Milaan Foundation’s My Life Mere Faisle (MLMF) program, which focussed on decision-making, conflict resolution, empathy, aimed at young women like her. It was a 40-hour journey with local adolescent girls, spread across a month with workshops, sessions, and activities on the focus areas.

The road to completing MLMF as a participant wasn’t as easy for Julie as it was for most others. She had to hide from her family, lest they disapprove and the little freedom she had recently acquired the taste of be taken away. She reminisces, “My family already disapproved of me going out at all, so they held MLMF sessions in the afternoons only for me, so I could hide and come while everyone was out at work”. Since she had no money, she would walk the 20 km on some days to reach the venue and the whole way back. Sooner than later, she knew her family was going to find out about her secret adventures. And they did. Julie remembers with misty eyes the day she was beaten up and scolded by her family, her rights of the little time she could spend outside taken away from her.

Having the will to change your life is the first step towards it. With such limitless will, Julie was to find her path, one way or another. She surprised herself and her family and fought back with conviction. “I remembered how far I had come in my journey with MLMF. The camaraderie I had built with my peers, and the things we used to talk about gave me more courage than I ever thought I had. I did not learn about the conflict-resolution framework ESCA to discuss in the workshop, I learnt it to make my life better. So I decided to employ it with my family,” she exclaims. Her brother agreed to her relentless efforts and let her attend the program if her nephew also goes along, so he could get updates of the goings on from him. The road ahead was relatively easy, albeit with its ebb and flow.

Julie finally completed the program, and decided that she had to share what she had received with others. It would be unfair to keep it to myself, she thought.

As with most small towns, Julie was challenged by her own reputation in her community. She was the girl who was out doing what she liked, fighting for what she believed in; she was a woman who thinks. “Convincing other families to lead their daughters to the same path as me was the biggest challenge”, she exclaims. Slowly and steadily, with determination and grit, Julie convinced one family to the next and was able to run MLMF in her own village with 41 young girls. These women went on to help villagers with acquiring aid from civil society organisations and government programs. “Today”, Julie says, “The same people who thought that I was led astray by the freedom I exercised come to me and want their daughters to engage with my work”.

Today, she says, she sees more women outside their homes; they have a space to voice their dreams and concerns, and are still able to demand respect from the community just as much as men do. Equality is still far ahead for the little Manduwadih, but there are now many who ask for it, and will fight for it. Hope resides in the hearts of those who dream, and it is the dishonourable who have the most to dream.

By, Tanya Sharma, Youth leader

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