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A day’s work and dilemmas it brings

I land up in office this morning, with my many bags, hoping that I could ask Meena* to help me by carrying some more luggage in the afternoon. I peep inside the main office room, my eyes looking for Meena amongst the many chirpy young women leaders working on various things around, only expecting a wide smile from her as usual. Instead, I see her walk out of the room with a laptop, notebook and charger in her hand, head down, a faint forceful twitch that was meant to be a smile, her eyes a little damp, a murmur that sounded like she said good morning to me. I immediately realised, something has happened. My heart skipped one beat. I touched her arm lightly, looked at her, and asked, "Kya huwa? Kuch Huwa?" (What happened? Did anything happen?) I could feel she was trying to not let her tears out. "Do you want to talk about it?" I asked. "I have already spoken with Rita*", she said. Rita is our designated counsellor for all "such" matters. Having been associated with FAT over 4 years, starting as one of the girl participants and then moved on to be a team member, coming out of similar circumstances herself, dealing them even today, and being the rebel that she is, Rita is a self-taught counsellor who can relate to the girls, understand the circumstances they are in and the dilemmas they face when they struggle to balance between what they want and what their family wants. Girls find it easy to speak to her, so she kind of landed in this designation of counsellor without being appointed by the organization, but by being selected by the girls as the person to go to. I still said, "If you want to talk to me too, I am available." She shook her head. I brought her to my room. 
 
Meena, 17 years old, has been with FAT as a participant of our Young Women's Leadership Program for over a year. At present, she is also an intern with FAT, a part of the Level 3 training in this program. She is engaged in organizing and working collectively with us and her peers to advocate for girls' rights within her community, while also learning the office work involved in working in an NGO for social change. From the day she joined as an intern, I noticed how she talks very articulately about wanting space for herself, and for her decisions. Like most girls her age, Meena's heart also desires to sometimes wear short dresses and cut sleeve shirts. But this is not possible at home as her parents and brothers won't allow it. Now that she is earning a little bit, she decided to fulfil her desire, bought a few short pants and sleeveless shirts to wear in office. She would come from home in her regular clothes and change into her new clothes in office. Slowly, she also felt confident to wear those clothes when she went out to run errands for office. Her family members can’t see her, so she felt she was safe. Until yesterday, when her brother saw her photos in those clothes on her phone, and beat her up. He used a belt to hit her, grabbed her hair and threw her around the house. The more she tried to stand up for herself, asking him to stop, threatening him that she can take police action if she wants, the more he beat her up. Her mother tried to intervene and got hurt. Meena herself has bruises in different parts of her body and a swollen skull. When Meena told her mother that she wants to take action against her brother, go to the police, because he will otherwise never change, her mother threatened her that she would either go away from home or kill herself if Meena does any such thing, because this will bring such bad name to the family. Hence, Meena, now does not know what to do, though she understands that there is no other way. Her brother has done this to both her elder sisters, who also happen to be older than this brother. One of them gave up her rebellion and now stays at home and does what she is told. One went out of home and married her boyfriend at a young age to escape this regular control, humiliation and beating.
 
Yesterday, Rita and Renuka* (another one of our team members) had to rush to Pinki's* home in Jalvihar and take her to hospital. Pinki was admitted in severe condition in a hospital just a week ago for jaundice. While we came to know about her severe state only after she was admitted in hospital, once our team members were there we realized that she was brought in at a critical stage when it was almost certain to the doctors that she may not recover. Many immediate decisions and attention from doctors saved her life and eventually she was discharged. But now, we heard she was back in this stage. Hence this emergency trip. The reason behind this state, she was not taken to doctors, even though she was begging her parents for it, until it became apparent that she is struggling for her life. Though this is not to be spoken of, but it is clear that this negligence is not because the family does not have money, but because saving her does not seem that important. Pinki has been unwell for a long time and had not been coming to FAT because of that. Our team had been following up to find out why she was not coming, but they never heard about jaundice or any other severe health issue. It was always said that she has a small fever. The family was consulting a local medicine man. Another one of our program participants had died the same day when Pinki was hospitalized because she did not receive proper treatment on time.
 
The same week as Pinki was hospitalized, our team members also had to rush Shanta* to the emergency room at AIIMs because she had consumed an overdose of abortion tablets. Shanta was forcefully married off to a 40 year old man when she was 17 and sent off to his village. She resisted marital rape for few years by constantly fighting and hurting herself to the extent that she was hospitalised. Eventually, she managed to run away from this small village in Tamil Nadu to Delhi and come back to her grandparents who forced her into the marriage in the first place. She fought with them to let her stay under the pretext that she is still a virgin and the condition that she will earn for herself. Shanta is not one of our program participants, but a neighbour of one of our participants, Shalini*. Recently, Shanta came to Shalini for help. Her husband had come few months back to take her back. Though she managed to fight and not go back, he did rape her. Now, she was pregnant. And she realized this only after 3 months. Shalini wanted to help her and asked us for advice.
 
Our commitment is to support the emerging girl leaders in taking action, and hence we started advising Shalini where to take Shanta and how to get an abortion. However, soon we realized, the matter was too complicated to be handled by two young women who were being sent from one desk to another. Shanta's pregnancy was nearing 5th month and she was severely anaemic too. Doctors refused to perform abortion and started to doubt if Shanta was even above 18 (she is 19 now). They said they could perform the abortion only if someone elder from the family gives consent. Shanta would not have that. If anyone comes to know, she would be sent straight back to her rapist husband.
 
At this point, we had to take the help of a women's health rights organization. Even after their intervention, after multiple visits to multiple doctors, an abortion was not a possibility. This is when, Shanta decided to take her own action. Shanta is safe now, and no one got to know. But the course of events has left our team with many dilemmas and sleepless nights, and me worried about stress that they deal with every day, what this means for their psychological, emotional and physical health and well being, what this means for the sustainability of our work, and most importantly what this means for "girls' rights".
 
This is how a regular day at FAT goes when our young women leaders work for girls' rights, support their peers to fight for a space for themselves in their lives, and struggle to actualise "girls' rights" that I and many of my peers, from the women's rights movement or those working for women's empowerment or those working for gender equality in general, talk about in our many meetings, conferences, articles, papers and project proposals.
 
We often bring our multiple definitions of the simple term "girl's rights", we often brainstorm and argue how we can realize girls' equality, how we can support girl leaders. This is a dilemma that I face ever so often, that I want to share today. Girls' Rights -  does it come by her ability to go to school, get an education, get a job, earn for herself or delay her marriage by a few years - or does it come by her ability to make her decisions about what she wears, where she goes, who she meets, who she loves, what time she gets home, whom she marries and when she marries, or if she even ever wants to marry?
 
Like you, even I wanted to quickly add the word "informed" before decisions here. Otherwise it sounds too risky. But what is an informed decision? Who influences this information? What is right information as per you and me is often (and mostly always) wrong information in another context, for people from other lines of thought and hence can lead to further risk. And even after having the information that you and I think is "right" for girls to have in their context, are we ready for girls to have absolute control over their own life, their own body and their own choices? Is the decision of a girl below 18 (official age of suddenly becoming an adult) to do whatever she wants to do with her life okay with us? Or do we feel compelled to stand up and shout "but she is only a child!" Where is the distinction between girls' rights and child protection?
 
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
 
 - Gayatri Buragohain, Founder and Executive Director, FAT