The “new Pratibha,” as her parents call her, proudly shows a neatly-kept balance bookwith her partners. With the help of a bank and skills learnt through UNICEF’s Deepshikha program, Pratibha Vankherde.17, and her friends started a small fabric business.
By Diana Coulter
CHANDRAPUR, India, 21 September 2011 - Just two years ago, Pratibha Vankherde wouldn’t dare raise her eyes as she walked the dirt paths of her village.
“Before, I was always very scared,” the 17-year-old girl recalls. “If I passed people, I would keep my head down because a girl was supposed to be shy and docile.”
But now, with eyes flashing and a quick smile, the ‘new Pratibha’, as her parents call her, easily stands before any crowd. With confidence, she talks with 35 other village girls about everything from fighting domestic violence or dowry demands to finishing school and launching lucrative careers.
“Now my parents tell people: She’s not a daughter to us, but even more than a son!,” the girl adds with obvious delight.
Pratibha says her dramatic transformation is thanks to lessons learned in Deepshikha, or the ‘Light a Lamp’ programme, which aims to break down age-old negative attitudes toward women. UNICEF started the programme on life skills for adolescent girls in a few slum communities in Mumbai and three remote districts of Maharashtra in 2008.
“With this training, they learn that being a girl doesn’t need to be shameful, that life is a gift not to waste and we all have dreams but just need to learn how to attain them,” explains Mimansa Shukla, UNICEF’s gender development consultant in this state.
In each village, the programme trains a teenaged-girl volunteer to be prerika or facilitator. With 20 days of games and activities interspersed with knowledge on various issues, the young woman learns how to motivate and instruct girls in her own village. Then she runs hour-long meetings five times a week, passing on this knowledge and encouraging their dreams.
Certainly, Pratibha and three of her friends are already dreaming. A few months ago, they realized many women in their remote village of Ukharda, population 586, don’t have the time or means to travel 20 kilometres to the next town to buy a new salwar kameez (Indian suit). So they pooled their own savings, hopped on a bus and bought 15 suits of various designs. Later, they charged about 25 rupees more per suit and soon earned a nice profit.
Proudly, Pratibha shows a neatly-kept balance book. With the help of Barclays Bank, which donates 2,000 rupees of seed money to each Deepshikha group, these girls have already saved 8,000 rupees.
They’re learning valuable lessons in budgeting and entrepreneurship. And they are handing out loans as well.
One girl’s family couldn’t afford the 1,000 rupees school enrolment fee for their daughter, so she borrowed from the group and paid it back with interest after about six months.
Down another one-lane bumpy road, past bursting cotton fields and waving corn, Tejaswini Telang, 17, says life hadn’t changed much in her small village of Kadi until recently.
Tejaswini Telang,17 has benefitted greatly from the UNICEF funded Deepshikha program. Her family struggled to afford school fees but after saving a small sum and with the help of the village women's Self Help Group she re-joined the school in 2010
“The cities are changing but villages are the same,” she says. “Girls are of lower status and are only of use between the kitchen and family breeding. Nothing beyond that.”
Like most villagers, she believed this and gave up on school until the Deepshikha programme started in her village in 2009.
“The facilitator told us: This is the 21st century and we should all get educated, especially the girls who can do anything!” Tejaswini recalls.
Now, the shelf behind her bed in a tidy hut is crammed with school books. She dreams of having a computer job some day, although she has yet to use one.
Shine like a star
Changing social attitudes are also evident in the village of Dadapur, where 18-year-old Kavita Ledange leads a Deepshikha group of 35 girls.
Recently, a 16-year-old unmarried girl got pregnant in the village and was shunned by the community. But Kavita recognized this unfairness and convinced the young mother to join her group. Together they talked to other villagers and finally convinced them to accept the teen mother.
“She is also just a girl like us and that is why she needs to be part of our group,” Kavita explains with a confident shrug. “And, if something like this were to happen to any of us, then what would we do without support?”
Kavita’s group is busy with a multitude of other activities, which includes a village cleanliness drive that encourages each family to build a toilet at their homes. In just two years, 142 toilets have been built here.
During village festivals, they often perform street plays that deliver social messages about domestic violence, child marriage, alcohol abuse and dowry demands. At every performance, the village echoes with the Deepshikha song: “I’m a girl. I will shine like a star…and I will spread light on the earth.”
In her free time, Kavita is an enthusiastic seamstress and one day hopes to be a fashion designer. But her greatest desire is to serve her community.
“I want to make my village happy and prosperous,” she says, waving an arm at the neat brick homes and smiling faces that already surround her.