March Ahead: Super Girls

It’s the pinnacle of all sporting events – the Olympics!!! With the onset of the AIF Clinton Fellowship’s Endpoint conference – the Summer Games of 2020 had begun. A once-in-a-four-year spectacle that I am always eagerly and patiently waiting to witness. 

People who know me closely know how much I love “sports” and the simultaneous feelings of sportsmanship, perseverance, etc., that it brings out of one. I spent most of my childhood around sports. I used to play table tennis at a competitive level. As soon as my table tennis training would get over, I would quickly move on to the next sport, which would either be badminton, squash or outdoor games like football, cycling or cricket. Even the first major novel that I had read was “Open” – an autobiography of the legendary tennis player – Andre Agassi. Henceforth, from the above, one can well gauge my obsession with sports. If not a development professional, I would have definitely chosen a career in sports.

It is day 2 of the Olympics, and Mirabai Chanu gets us our first medal. A few days later, PV Sindhu and Lovlina Borgohain brought home two more medals. An immense feeling of joy had set in. However, the moment that topped it all was when the Indian women’s hockey team, who were ranked no. 9 in the world, defeated the mighty world no. 2 – the Australian team. The Indian women’s hockey team booked an Olympic semi-final spot, for the first time. The only thought that kept running in my head was how these girls had brought laurels to our country, which only goes to show the value of allowing girls to step out of their homes to explore and follow their passion and dreams. 

On the day of the Indian hockey women team’s emphatic victory, I travelled back to Bihar – to continue my post-fellowship journey with my host organization – Project Potential, but now as an employee. As soon as I reached the office, Rumi and Savita – the two young girls from our local team greeted me. While I was still reminiscing and getting inspired by the outstanding performances of our girls in Tokyo, I realized that Rumi and Savita are themselves such massive pillars of inspiration, with whom I have had the honour/opportunity to share the same professional space.

Rumi and Savita teaching each other and having fun.

Both Rumi and Savita are incredibly young – one is 21 years old, and the latter is 18 years old. They initially joined as volunteers in Project Potential’s theatre program but now are permanent employees of Project Potential. Both belong from the nearby villages and are independently taking care of their own needs while simultaneously supporting their families. Despite all the challenges that they had to face in their respective lives, the growth that I have seen in them in the last ten months has been “immense” and “inspirational”, to say the least. Their dedication, willingness to learn, commitment to work-related tasks, along with their will & desire to grow, is something that I wished I had when I was their age.

 

Rumi and Savita interacting with communities to spread awareness about Tuberculosis.

 

End of a long day of fieldwork for Rumi and Savita.

 

At my host organization, we are currently running a massive COVID-19 vaccine mobilization drive across all the 22 panchayats of the block. The campaign involves 150 volunteers, going from one home to home another across their respective villages and spreading the correct information about vaccines. Out of the 150 volunteers, around 60% of the volunteers are girls.

Some of our female volunteers learning how to navigate through Google Maps.

I have had the opportunity to interact with the majority of them. The more I have such interactions, the more inspired I get. Like with Rumi and Savita, the work ethic of these girls and their willingness to learn and grow is immense. You invite them for a meeting/workshop; these girls will cycle kilometres and arrive at the venue – not on time, but before time and wait for the session to begin. I have seen the growth in these girls since the time they joined as volunteers. On day 1, they were naive, scared and nervous. Fast forward to this date; they are assisting the local health administration in managing vaccination centres, visiting home to home and spreading awareness about vaccines, repeatedly asking questions to us, and giving us suggestions on how we can better improve our program. 

Project Potential has a campus of its own. A few female volunteers were once invited to the campus to participate in an experiential team building and leadership workshop. Post the workshop, they were given a tour of the campus and were explained about the various elements followed in it. E.g., Waste Management, etc. When the day ended, the girls and I were having a conversation, and I asked them about the best thing that happened to them on that day. Of course, everyone had their own set of highlights. However, the one highlight that was common for all was the fact that they got the opportunity to travel with their friends, come to a new place and spend the entire day in it. The glow in all of the girl’s faces when they mentioned this aspect was exhilarating to watch. Surprisingly, this was a standard answer across all the other girls with whom I have had similar interactions on what they enjoyed the most while working with us at Project Potential. Before the vaccine mobilization drive, they would step out of their homes only when it was required. Many hadn’t even seen the entirety of their village. So, apart from all the learnings, just the fact that they were getting the opportunity to travel around their villages, make new friends, meet new people and interact with them was giving them immense satisfaction. 

 

Glimpses from the workshop in Project Potential’s campus.

 

Networking amidst the participants during the fellowship.

 

As I reflected on the above conversations, I realized the importance of experiencing the basic feeling of freedom for one to grow. For empowerment to occur, the first step is to provide a space where one feels that sweet feeling of freedom. The rest will follow, especially when you have females who have the immense will and desire to learn and grow. This is where development organizations play a crucial role in striking a relationship of trust within the communities and thereby facilitating the breaking of age-old shackles and creating an environment of freedom amongst communities. If it weren’t for the communities’ trust in my host organization, none of the families would have allowed their girls to come and spend an entire day outside their respective villages – in our campus. This holds true for the other volunteers as well. One step at a time, the girls are being allowed to come out of their shells and explore. At present, it may be limited to their own villages, but hopefully, the radius expands with time. This highlights the power of a grassroots development organization. However, with great power comes great responsibility. Hence, being mindful about the same and consciously making efforts to bring in disruptions and changing community psychologies is of utmost importance. 

Personally, just knowing the fact that I am working on a project and in a space wherein I am assisting a bunch of human beings in feeling the most basic yet crucial human emotion, i.e. of freedom, is immensely satisfying for me. This is what makes the development sector extremely special. At times, in a rush to secure funding and designing interventions, we often fail to acknowledge our role in facilitating the most crucial emotion that a human being needs and lives for – Freedom. 

I cannot even contemplate imagining how much we will progress as a society if freedom and equality of opportunities join hands. I wished there was a way for us to measure freedom and quantify it.

Tonmoy is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Project Potential in Kishanganj, Bihar. For his fellowship project, he is supporting and coordinating public health projects in four panchayats across Kishanganj. Tonmoy was raised in Numaligarh Refinery Township, a small township in Assam. Right since his childhood, he has been a firm believer in the concept of equity and thereby, equitable and sustainable policymaking has always interested him. With this in mind, he decided to pursue Political Science, with minors in Economics from Delhi University. Early in his undergraduate studies, he understood the power of learning by doing, which made him undertake his first internship at Child Rights and You in his second year of college. Here, he taught various subjects to slum kids along with being a part of their flash mob team. To understand policymaking, he worked as an intern at Niti Aayog, the government of India’s policy think tank, where he handled the partner management process at the Women Entrepreneurship Platform along with being a part of the organizing team of India’s first Global Mobility Summit – MOVE Summit. Later, he was appointed under the special secretary to Niti Aayog, as a research intern at CADFI (Center for Advancement in Digital Financial Inclusion). Apart from this, he has been volunteering in various capacities with other organizations in the development sector like Rural Changemakers in rural Madhya Pradesh, and Maati Community in Assam, exposing him to challenges faced by rural India while simultaneously motivating him to work on eliminating them. In his free time, Tonmoy likes to watch documentaries, read about human psychology, and go for runs. Tonmoy expects the AIF Clinton Fellowship to be a highly reflective experience for him. As an AIF Clinton Fellow, he aims to do better, be better and bring conversations surrounding the development sector, back to his hometown.

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