Broken up into pairs, the girls are inflating coloured balloons and carefully writing one-liners on them with felt pens. A petite girl, with thick dark hair and bright eyes calls the chattering girls to order.
What Akanksha Bapuji Mashirkar lacks in physical stature she amply makes up for in character. Akanksha is the Prerika (peer educator) of Dhanora under UNICEF’s Deepshikha programme that works with adolescent girls. A programme that proved to be “a turning point” in Akanksha’s life in 2008. Since then there has been no looking back.
Akanksha is the oldest child and only daughter of parents engaged in agriculture, and lives with her parents, grandmother and younger brother in Dhanora, a village located 20 kilometres from district headquarters, Chandrapur.
Despite their meagre income, her parents educated both their children. Akanksha studied in the school in Dhanora up to the upper primary level before going to nearby Ghugush town for senior secondary school and later college.
“This is where I first studied,” she says pointing to the pink ground floor structure at the entrance of the village. “Education is the key to empowerment. It is important to ensure that every child goes to school,’ says Akanksha.
But Akanksha wasn’t always this way. “I must confess that I used to be an introvert and was terrified of speaking in public. The Deepshikha programme changed my life and my personality. I gained confidence and got over my inhibitions as I learned about important life skills, gender and development,” explains Akanksha.
It was under Akanksha’s guidance that a group of 12 adolescents got together and formed the Sakhi Adolescent Girls Self-Help Group with their own bank account.
“Today I am not afraid of addressing big gatherings. In fact, I enjoy interacting with people of all ages, imparting knowledge to them, sharing important messages about education, nutrition and sanitation,” says Akanksha.
It was this ability to connect with people and raise awareness on vital matters that drew the attention of the village community, the gram panchayat and other functionaries. Soon Akanksha became the go-to person for every activity, event and programme aimed at community welfare. She is viewed as an asset, a role model and an uncommon example of leadership by the community.
She helped the Sarpanch (village head) to test salt and spread awareness about the benefits of iodised salt. The Anganwadi worker sought her support to organise immunisation sessions and also to prepare for the Village Health and Nutrition Day.
In March 2013, Akanksha initiated the Sant Gadgebaba Gaon Swachhata Abhiyan (End Open Defecation Campaign) and galvanised women, students, village functionaries and others into action. Armed with brooms, they swept the village clean and vowed to put an end to open defecation. Today every family has a toilet outside their home!
Akanksha added another feather to her cap by working as a resource person for the facilitation of a Gram Panchayat-level micro planning process in seven Gram Panchayats (local governance unit) as part of an initiative organised by the Nehru Yuva Vikas Mandal.
She also got and opportunity to work as a trainer to train the Prerikas of Tumsar block under the Deepshikha programme. It is this that she rates as her greatest achievement.
“Since Independence, I am the first girl from Dhanora to venture out of the village boundaries on her own to work. No other woman has ever done this before. But I have to admit that it wasn’t easy,” she states while adding: “At first, some people in the village would taunt me for stepping out of house. They would insult me. My parents too didn’t support me at the beginning. But soon all this changed.”
We didn’t understand what Akanksha was doing at first. Then we saw that she was doing meaningful work and slowly gained the confidence of one and all. Today when everyone – young and old - respectfully addresses her as ‘Akanksha madam’, my chest swells with pride. I wish that every father should have a daughter like mine,” says Akanksha´s father, Bapuji Mashirkar smiling, with emotion.
The Mashirkars are gearing up for Akanksha’s wedding next month (April 2014). After the wedding, she will be moving to Ghugush to live with her husband and his family. But Ghugush’s gain need not be Dhanora’s loss as Akanksha is determined to continue working in her native village. “There is no reason why I should stop working for the community here post-marriage,” she says.
When asked about her role model, Akanksha says she is inspired by the life and work of Savitribai Phule as well as her trainers in the Deepshikha programme. And Akanksha, in turn, is an inspiration for not only a whole generation of young women but the entire village community as well.