VOICE 4 Girls believes it all starts with an adolescent girl: that girls, when given the knowledge and skills they need to succeed, are able to change the futures of their families, their communities, and India.
Based in Hyderabad, VOICE runs summer camps both in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Uttarakhand for marginalized adolescent girls, giving them the tools need to advocate for themselves and their futures. Uttarakhand and Andhra/Telangana are about as different as Indian states get, but when Averil Spencer, co-founder and director of VOICE, was approached by the Uttaranchal Association of North America (UANA) to collaborate and address groups of girls who are isolated geographically and cut off from critical information, she jumped at the opportunity. Now in their 4th year of operation, VOICE now has a total of 70 camps that have reached over 2,000 campers across several districts of Uttarakhand.
Many were skeptical of the need for a camp like this. “Gender inequality isn’t an issue in Uttarakhand,” we heard countless times as we passed women hunched over from the weight of the small forests they carry on their heads and backs. And it’s true, at least on the surface. Certainly compared to Andhra Pradesh, a state with one of the highest rates of child marriage in India, gender issues seem relatively muted in Uttarakhand. It may seem like VOICE has less of a challenge here. Women share responsibilities inside the home and out, doing the bulk of agricultural work as well as taking care of the home as their husbands are off in cities holding temporary jobs. Child marriage is nearly obsolete, and most women say confidently that they make decisions equally with their husbands.
But beneath the barely concealed surface, gender inequality is present and prominent. “Here, people believe that a family should have more boys than girls,” Puspha, an Anganwadi worker and mother of three from a village in the Tehri district, one of the areas in where VOICE operates, explains. “Even people who have already two girls want boys, and even if they get a boy, they think that if the boy falls ill, they’ll suffer.” Village women are not shy about their decisions to keep having children until they have these two prized boys, often leading to greater struggles as they try to raise a large family on meagre wages.
And although women work outside the home, their work is less valued than their husbands’, because it is often unpaid. They look after crops and cattle, intended for personal consumption. We continuously heard women praising their hardworking husbands, in cities or in the army, while they themselves carried impossible loads over impossible distances on a daily basis.
Proud to be a girl
VOICE seeks to address these inequalities by targeting the girls who will one day be those women. Through an activity-based curriculum, VOICE teaches campers vital information about health, safety, rights, and future planning, that girls don’t normally get through school or from family members. Topics like “Proud to be a Girl” focus on building girls’ confidence in their ability to stand up for themselves and their futures. And VOICE campers are taking these lessons home to their peers and families, too.
Camper Sidoli Saraswati, for example, tells her sisters about what she’s learning at VOICE: “Now we all are very much confident, we discuss everything at home together.” VOICE believes that by educating adolescent girls about making healthy decisions and negotiating with family members for their futures, they will eventually break cycles of gender and economic inequality in their communities.
Gender equality? Talk to the boys
But one thing sets apart VOICE from your typical non-profit working with women’s issues in India: it teaches not only girls, but boys, the importance of gender equality. While VOICE’s Andhra camps are exclusively for girls, select camps in Uttarakhand are offered for both girls and boys. These United VOICE camps teach boys the importance of supporting their female peers, addressing topics such as valuing female community heroes, making decisions as a family, leadership qualities, and respecting women. Although United VOICE camps also deal largely with career and education choices for both genders, just by providing a space where boys and girls are encouraged to work collectively and creatively VOICE breaks down gender barriers that typically exist in the classroom.
A unique fee-for-service revenue model
VOICE also stands apart from other non-profits because of its unique and scalable business model. “VOICE was designed to scale nationally but adapt locally in order to provide relevant information to the the 72 million marginalized adolescent girls in India,” remarks VOICE’s Director, Averil Spencer. “VOICE believes in sustainability. While VOICE’s budget is supplemented by donations from a few major partners, almost 50% of VOICE’s operational funds are covered by program partners who run camp with VOICE. This fee-for-service model ensures partners like UANA and the Andhra Pradesh Social Welfare Society are bought in ideologically as well as financially.”
VOICE camps have been met by community members and campers with praise, excitement, and support. VOICE will continue to expand, unleashing the power of thousands more girls across the state who can transform the future of Uttarakhand, and of India.
Anne Munger is a filmmaker, and Zoe Hamilton a researcher currently working on a project in Uttarakhand regarding women’s family planning choices in the rural hilly areas. To learn more about VOICE 4 Girls check our their website, www.voice4girls.org.