Girls find ways to fight injustice in troubled Uttar Pradesh

Teens take courses in journalism and leadership
Girls find ways to fight injustice in troubled Uttar Pradesh

Teenage girls at the camp in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

On a bright sunny day, Poornima, a 20-year-old post graduate student traveled from her remote village in Sultanpur district to a town in Raebareli district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. 

Over the next three days, she would share many of her concerns as a teen living in a dangerous environment in a troubled state and would try to find solutions to some of them.

Poornima is part of a group of more than 35 teenage girls from Uttar Pradesh who attended a leadership/journalism training camp held July 31 to August 2 in the state's Raebareli district. 

During discussion groups, the teens voiced many of their pressing concerns; growing insecurity, sanitation, education, and ending the practice of dowry, among others. The camp was organized by the Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana womens' rights organization based in Uttar Pradesh.

The gathering becomes relevant considering that Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state with more than 200 million people, recently saw a spate of gruesome violence against women -- many of the victims being poor teenage Dalit girls. 

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The rape and hanging of two Dalit cousins in Budaun district in Uttar Pradesh in May created a renewed outcry for security for women. Later in June, in two separate incidents, two more women were found dead hung from a tree, one being a 19-year old girl. In the Budaun gang rape, there were accusations that police took no action when the girls were reported missing. In a separate incident in June, a women was allegedly gang-raped by three police officers inside a police station.

The recurring law and order problem in the state prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to say that protecting women should be a priority.

The three-day camp aimed at empowering girls with basic journalism skills and to sensitize them to issues that affect their lives.

The camp became an opportunity for the girls to talk openly about the state's insecure situation that they believe hinders their progress.

"My mother strictly told me not to go to school as it was not safe anymore. That was the end of my official schooling," says Salma, who now sells handicrafts to support her family. 

"Because of recurring instances of rape, murder and other atrocities against girls, more and more parents are hesitating to send their children to school. If a girl misses her schooling, she is missing a chance to succeed in the future," says Rani Shukla, another participant.

According to the 2011 census, the female literacy rate in Uttar Pradesh was at 51.36 percent, compared to male literacy that stood at 77.28 percent.

According to one of the camp participants, many villagers believe that "educating girls is a waste of time". 

During the camp, girls were taught basic reporting skills and were prompted to think and write of what they think is news. They recounted some of the gruesome incidents that have occurred in their state, underlying the insecure situations they encounter on a daily basis.

While some stressed  caste-based violence and incidents of "honor killings," others talked about the conservative society that hinders their progress.

Karishma, a college student, recalled a five-year-old incident where two girl students were found dead inside her classroom. She said that initially, the parents were convinced by school authorities that the girls had run away. 

"The blood stains are still there on our classroom wall," she says, as the other girls listened with stunned faces. 

Several north Indian villages have had young women murdered through honor killing, a term that refers to a murder of a family member because the victim allegedly brought shame to the family for engaging in a relationship with an "inferior caste" member. 

"We face many problems frequently. Dirty comments from men when we walk around in the village, especially at  night, are common," says Rani Thukla, who hopes to become a police officer to stop injustices against women. 

Activists say that the worsening law and order situation is negatively affecting female education prospects in the state. 

"The situation in Uttar Pradesh has changed over the last two years. Growth of communal forces, instances of violence targeted at women and growing conservatism have affected female education in the state," says Malini Bhattacharya, president of All India Democratic Womens' Association. 

She said the girls who go to school have to cross many hurdles. 

"It is the responsibility of the government, civil society etc to create an environment where girls could walk around freely to pursue their dreams," Malini said.

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