BY ANDREW DUBOCK
It leaves a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach. Poverty at its most raw: unstable shelters deep in stagnant water, malnourished babies, hundreds of people accessing one well of unclean water, children with leprosy.
It’s particularly hard to hear about the situation for girls, who are most affected by these conditions as they are disregarded by families and discriminated against by society. I’m told how they are not safe in their own neighbourhoods; “hunted” by local men – often family members – who are drunk and jobless.
I’m in Dighar, one of Patna’s many slums – in the capital of India’s poorest state, Bihar – to see how Viva and its local partner network is committed to tackling some of the challenges facing girls.
I hear that when a baby girl is born in some families, it is more like a funeral. Devesh Lal, Viva’s Network Consultant, based in Patna, (right) knows only too well of how the public perceive girls. He says, “People sympathise with me because I have three daughters. Whoever asks me how many children I have, I say, ‘three daughters,’ and they say, ‘sorry brother’.”
Devesh is passionate about improving lives for girls in Patna. “The Church is the only vehicle that can bring a change here in people’s mindsets. We love our girls and we would like to give them opportunities.”
One of the ways Viva is responding is by providing mentoring for girls in the slums. I attend one of the sessions where 20 girls come along each week to be taught about life issues and help them to develop confidence for the future. This simple hut acts as a safe haven for them – a short walk yet a million miles from the struggles and dangers of everyday life.
Maria (right) is the girls’ teacher and mentor. She sits alongside them to explain things they don’t understand and to encourage them. After the session she tells me, “This mentoring is the number one need for girls in the area. The girls face a lot of challenges and we have to empower them, to make them strong to defend themselves and to speak out.”
She adds, “I feel like the girls are able to understand, and to hear the things we say from our heart. For the first time, they are hearing about issues regarding friendship, self-esteem, sexual issues, relationships and safety. We encourage them to be bold.”
Another mentor is Sister Veena Jacob (right) from Navjeevan Educational and Social Welfare Society, a member of the network. Her organisation focuses on teaching children and women who are most marginalised: migrants, those with disabilities and those with addictions.
She says, “We give opportunities to children living in poverty. We help them in small ways, which gives them confidence and improves their self-esteem. They don’t have a house but they can develop skills that will always be with them wherever they go and we help them to stand by themselves.”
By joining the network, individual churches and organisations in Patna are supporting each other in effectively reaching out to girls and providing greater advocacy on their behalf. I have the privilege of attending a public meeting where experiences are shared and future plans discussed.
Girls are at the heart of this event. Some act, others dance and a handful share powerful testimonies. One tells us that her life had become so hard that she has forgotten how to smile and had stopped eating, but that now, through the mentoring programme, she has been able to keep studying and following her dreams. It is moving to see all 50 girls present honoured on the stage by receiving flowers and gifts, and being prayed for.
Devesh says afterwards that follow-up to the event is crucial. “Today, we have suggested some of the ways that church leaders can improve the lives of girls here. There were many instant decisions. One couple has committed to giving two hours every day to educate a girl child for free, and one organisation said it will support five girls to go to school.”
Sister Veena says being part of the network is essential for her, and others like her. “It draws people together. People were alone, but they have received a lot of support in the network. Each member has different resources. It gives me strength and appreciation of what others are doing.”
This combined power of network members can influence city leaders about girl child issues. Devesh has bigger plans for Patna, and says, “Now we want to invite those in industry, colleges and civil society, and have a large consultation, and take further steps to improve life for girls.”
“I have a dream that when people enter Patna – from the railway station, bus stand, road and airport – they will see that this city is a safe and happy place for girls.”
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