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Stories from Thar Desert

I have been traveling the interiors of the thar desert for a year now, collecting stories and narratives of women on my way. These stories are of change. An assertion of right and freedom. an affirmation of a life without agony, pain and subservience. A story of confidence, change, empowerment and self-dependence.

Here is one story out of eleven I documented, capturing the change education brought to these eleven women. Understanding their context and perspectives and understanding how they have changed and cause ripples within their spheres, forcing a larger change in the world around them. These women as adolescents were educated at Balika SHivirs -bridge residential education camps in the western region of Rajasthan. Over 20,000 girls have been educated in the Balika shivirs over a span of 12 years.

In a society, where their fates were submitted to a lifelong subservience first to the man they are born to and later to whom they are married off to. They have no possibilities, no opportunities and no chance to an alternate life. But this today has changed! They have changed!!! They now know what they want and have found a voice that resonates this. It is important that their stories be heard, to inspire and give courage to many more like them and those working with many more like them.

Here is Basanti's Story. It is called "Inspiring on her Way" and you will soon know why...

"Inspiring on her way"

Euphoria – the word closely describes the excitement that surrounds the campus. The girls, all singing and dancing, are spread across the place. Colours reflect their many shades on the faces of the girls. Out of nowhere, her commanding voice is heard and the girls running around come to a halt. Chitter-chatter falls to murmur, slowly drawing to silence. Girls huddle up exchanging glances and listening in carefully. Their excitement sees no leveling down. Basanti gives them the itinerary for until the next day and instructs them to get their belongings together.
It is the last day at Shivir. The girls are excited about seeing their families. Many emotions run through them simultaneously. All the fervour and delight intersperses with sadness. It is the sorrow of parting with their friends and their jijis (teachers). They may never be seeing each other again. The Shivir has become a home, away from home. Six months spent here are chronicled in their memories forever. Life stands at the threshold, once more.

Basanti knows how dear this day is to them. Only three years ago, she was on the other side, holding her friends in embrace. It was her third camp and she had passed her class ten. Each time making new friends and meeting a few old ones, learning and living together, she hardly realized how in five years and three camps, she managed to graduate class ten. Today, donning the role of a teacher at the Shivir, she understands the girls very well. This swap in roles fills her with immense pleasure and pride. She exclaims, “A decade ago she could not read and write, today I teach how to! Helping others like her to sculpt their futures themselves.” She recognizes how this responsibility extends itself further on her.

Until her fourteenth year, grazing sheep marked her growing years. In the far dunes, she would go with her sisters at times and sometimes alone. Life has come a full circle for her and in such a pleasant manner. She realizes life’s similes, each time she sees the girls, hears their stories and shares their life. And it further elaborates the possibilities she now sees for herself, making her reflect on the journey she has been through.

Basanti’s mother has been her biggest strength. She is the reason why Basanti and all of her six sisters found an opportunity to study. This opened their lives to new shores. Her mother is an Anganwadi worker, a class eight graduate. Despite this, she could not send her daughters to school. Her husband and mother-in-law did not agree with girls going to school. They questioned the need of education for girls. They justified using the societal norm authenticating their point of views. They believed it was an unnecessary expenditure, over and above the dowry for six daughters. But Basanti’s mother was determined to send the daughters to school. When she heard the opportunity at the shivir, she persuaded, fought and finally sent them all.

Her mother’s struggle instilled a strong sense of determination in her daughters. The girls knew the worth of this opportunity. They knew it was the only chance they had and they had to use it to the best. Basanti says, “we wanted to make our mother proud. To prove it to our father that it was not a mistake. We also realized that only our hard work and efforts during Shivir could be a possible expression of gratitude for our mother.”

Today as a mentor, She often narrates her story to the girls. This, she points out, dilutes barriers, especially that of a teacher and a student. They quickly become each other’s confidant relating with each other and establishing an immediate connect to last forever. Once they open up, no issue, from health to their families or even marriages, remains a taboo. When they go back, this internalized approach, reaches their homes and makes many homes spatial for women to express and share what they feel. Basanti from her experience verifies how even the simplest of sharing opportunity made a difference in her own family – today all her sisters are working, independent and confident.

Basanti is studying first year of graduation. She teaches at the shivir to support herself. “What better way could I do this, than sharing my knowledge, experience and learning?” she questions. She is positive and assertive of her choices. She sees the potential in her. She wants to be a policewoman and is preparing for the entrance. When asked why? Pat she replies, “To protect women!”

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