From the very beginning, the induction project faced a number of challenges. Partly due to the strong patriarchal norms present in the community where women are not expected to express themselves and partly due to the newness of this CoVid-19 world, a certain ‘compliance-mentality’ was being built in our field coordinators.
For example, when we used to share any learning tasks with them with some questions for them to reflect and share their opinions from a place of personal experience, almost all of these tasks were met with a standard textbook-ish kind of an answer, with ‘he/him’ being the pronouns mostly used. It also did not align or reflect any of the discussions we had in the learning sessions. In our follow-up discussions, they would always ask us if their answers and responses to the learning tasks were ‘right’ or ‘correct’. Their participation in discussions would also be limited, or mirroring what we share as facilitators. Such a culture of dependency and compliance developed and persisted, and overcoming this was a struggle for us.
We realized that we had to make them stop thinking of these learning spaces only as a means to do their ‘job’ as expected from the organization or just build their ‘technical skills’, but also as space and ways of self-expression and identity. We realized that they had never been in situations before where they were made to feel belonged; asked and encouraged to participate, think about their feelings, ideas and opinions. All through their life they had received validation and acceptance from others only when they confirmed with the norms and any deviation from it was often met with ridicule from people around them. As one of our field coordinators shared, “When we were in school, our teachers would often pass comments that we are in school only to escape household chores and not necessarily to learn. The boys would also mock at us for being in schools, saying that they would never send their sisters to school. This wouldn’t make us feel good about ourselves and did not give us interest to put in more of our effort. But when few teachers shared that we are good at multitasking and can also study or work while managing house too, we would feel good”.
Therefore, they had to learn to express themselves and assert their agency — often by making mistakes. We had to create that space for them where they can learn to be unafraid of making mistakes, from a place of patience, empathy and belief in their abilities. As facilitators, we kept motivating them, getting them to believe that their ideas and opinions aren’t any less to others and that there are no right or wrong answers. And we built the content and learning objectives from what they brought into these spaces and in a language that is familiar to them. We brought to the fore and discussed about their experiences — on their schooling experiences, on gendered expectations from family and others. We started connecting themes and concepts to their experiences — what Fiere calls “the materials that life offers” and using that as learning materials — and this allowed us to weave in their voice and the context of what they are sharing and why.
We also started out with small affirmations of confidence. In a place where most women could not read, write and own or operate a mobile phone, having them pick up a crayon and draw was a task in itself! One of the first activities was for them to choose colours and express their feelings. Aiza and Sahina shared “we are touching these crayons and paint only now after our primary education. This is intimidating”. Over the sessions, when they began to see that they also had ideas and opinions to add to the discussion in these learning sessions, which in turn constructed learning for everyone, they began feeling a bit more confident than before. We could visibly see that they were less embarrassed and were open to try doing an activity in English; to make mistakes; to share that they don’t know and to share things they weren’t comfortable with in the sessions. Today, they are comfortable in writing and maintaining their own personal diaries and also in using technology like google email and whatsapp. This space of acceptance and no judgement was instrumental in showing them that they were also equally capable of learning new things and asserting their identity. Off late, one of our field coordinators has also started to remove her pardah and attend the sessions. While we still have a long way to go, we are observing that these learning spaces are becoming a safe space where they feel they can be themselves, confidently.
What are our learnings?
We are learning that our field coordinators derive their feelings, ideas, and identity of self mainly through their social interactions and not always from the subjects or content that they are being ‘taught’. The meanings and feelings which are created in such interactions shapes their identity and orientations towards themselves and their place in the world. Unfortunately, their previous educational and learning experiences have created an identity of being incompetent and inferior. But creating an enabling environment, devoid of judgement and being respectful of their identities and experiences, allows the possibility of different kinds of conversations and orientations. Slowly, this will empower their actions and help them work out a new sense of identity.
When we ask our field coordinators for their feedback, they share that ‘they feel different here. And that they are learning in a different way than what they had done in their college or school. It is a strange new experience’. The way we see it, they have started their journey towards a more positive and confident identity of self — and this outcome is far more important and critical than them learning to read and write in English.
About the Author: Suganya Sankaran
Suganya Sankaran currently consults with SwaTaleem Foundation, where she works on strengthening partnership efforts to mobilize resources for supporting adolescent girls studying at KGBV schools to have access to contextual and meaningful education. She is a Young India Fellow (batch of 2017) and a Mother Teressa Fellow (batch of 2020).