Let’s take a step back in time, to September 2013. In Bhavnagar, India, the ground was still slightly damp from a late monsoon season. I rode sidesaddle on Alpesh’s motorbike, a coworker who runs the children’s bank at Shaishav. We swerved back and forth on the tightly built dirt pathways that connect the slums, successfully dodging dogs, pigs, children and potholes. Alpesh and I visited three “bank points” that day, one simply being the courtyard of a home where the children met each week, another being an open field with trash scattered randomly on the outskirts, and a third being a school located at the heart of Kumbarwada, Bhavnagar’s largest slum.
As we pulled up to the school, I watched children running in circles around the playground. They saw us and trickled into an empty classroom; no chairs, tables or school supplies of any sort to be found, and sat in uniform rows on the floor. They all sang the Balsena song, then taught me how to properly greet each other at Balsena meetings, with a “high five!” or “detali!” in Gujarati. After a half hour of questions about everything from my mother’s profession to the weather in my hometown, Alpesh disbanded my inquisition and started performing bank transactions. Children were free to interact with me, the strange foreigner, and I was quickly surrounded by a large group. Questions started in Gujarati, quickly switched to Hindi, and when we exhausted my Hindi vocabulary, we found that amongst us, one child could speak English and translate for the group.
This boy, perhaps nine or ten years old, asked me politely, “madam, do you know about mother’s rights?” Mother’s rights? I thought. Does he mean women’s rights? I gently pushed him further. “No, can you explain them to me?” This young man, still in elementary school, proceeded to tell me all about women’s rights. He explained to me the importance of continuing education for girls, telling me that girls should have equal opportunities, and that in India, girls are often marginalized within Indian society. The young men around him nodded to reinforce his points after translating for them to Gujarati. Whether it was our location (in the middle of a sparsely furnished school), his extremely young age, my preconceived biases towards his gender or my personal paradigms about men in semi-rural India; for whatever reason, his speech was extremely powerful for me. At the end he grinned and said, “now you understand, yes?” as I stood, shocked, practically in tears, marveling at the grace and leadership found in this young boy as he ran off to play outside.
Before I left for this fellowship, all of my relatives and friends asked me the same question. “So…women’s rights in India…they’re not so good lately…we read this news article…be careful…” This young man’s speech was the first of several relevant interactions during my time working in India that has reinforced my opinion that women are gaining rights in this country. I am lucky enough to have the chance to observe this process organically develop at a grassroots level. Since arriving in Bhavnagar, I have attended gender-sensitization trainings for adolescent girls. I watched young girls learn self-defense. I observed men learning about gender roles, being trained as trainers for their communities to shift paradigms about gender. I helped facilitate a gender training for the fellowship. I flipped through pictures of protests against section 377 with coworkers, explaining to them the change in this law and why I personally think it is wrong.
Of course, the news will always expose horror stories, and will show that in many places, India is only beginning its journey down a long road of change. However, with each brick broken (an empowerment activity at self-defense trainings that works surprisingly well) I believe more and more that the status of females is changing in India. In the remainder of my time here, I hope to encounter not just women and girls, but specifically more young men raising their voices for gender equality, such as this young boy found deep in a slum in Bhavnagar. As I hopped onto the back of Alpesh’s bike to return to the office, I found myself thinking “that boy must have one lucky mother.”