S02E04: In her voice

In conversation with Swarnlata Mahilkar, Girl Fellow, EMpower and Shireen Ansari, researcher, COVID In her voice

Or listen here:


Saniya’s rap: ‘Aao yahan bataoon mein, kaisa mehsoos karti hoon.
Duniya mein andhera ho, aisa mehsus karti hoonYeh bheed bhaad yeh chahal pehel
Kuch nahin ab bhaata hai, Na rozaana se yaari hai
Na koi milne aata hai.
Aao yahan bataaon mein, kaisa mehsoos karti hoon
Andhera ho duniya main, aisa mehsus karti hoon.’

(Translation: Come here let me tell you how I feel,
that the world has gone dark, that’s how I feel.
This crowd, this loud world –
nothing seems interesting anymore, no daily friendships,
noone comes to meet anymore.
Come here let me tell you how I feel,that the world has gone dark, that’s how I feel.)

Deepika: That’s the voice of 15-year old Saniya from the Govandi slum in Mumbai setting her Covid lockdown experience to song: Let me tell you how I feel – that the world has gone dark. That’s how I feel.

Arpita: And that bit about – na koi milne aata hai – that ‘I can’t meet my friends’, you can feel such a strong sense of being trapped at home in those words. And yet she’s writing and rapping about it which makes it somehow an act of strength even as it is a heart rending account of the loneliness that the lockdown brought. 

Deepika: The Covid-19 virus seems to have spared most adolescents from the worst of its effects, but they were not immune to the severe stress of living in the middle of a pandemic. 

Arpita: I’m all the more intrigued as it’s not only an adolescent girl writing this but it’s a young girl from particularly difficult circumstances writing about this. The pandemic and lockdowns were hard on everyone but the people in the slums of Mumbai and other such spaces with their super dense population and one room homes had it very very hard. 

Deepika: You know even back in 2020, a UC Berkeley report pointed out that the ‘shelter-in-place’ strategy i.e. staying at home during lockdowns was a luxury of the wealthy and would be hard for people dwelling in urban slums as rarely do they have an option of sitting at home, as it often means giving up work and even basic necessities like food, water and sanitation. And today’s conversation goes along those lines but further – as we discuss in particular the experience of young girls in slums through the pandemic years. 

Arpita: Okay then let’s get started! So tell me, who did you talk to?

Deepika: Two women actually –  the first was Swarnlata Mahilkar who facilitated and helped structure and shape the research process that we’ll be discussing today. She is a Girl Fellow with EMpower India which is a global philanthropy focused on supporting at-risk youth in countries like India.

Swarnlata: My name is Swarnalata. And I work as the Girl Fellow at EMpower. I co-manage EMpower’s programmes that we run with adolescent girls and young women, for building their leadership and agency. EMpower has been working in urban areas of India from the past 20 years. we work with our grantee partners, and along with them, we have been working with young people, especially adolescent girls and young women who belong to the marginalised communities, and they live in extremely underprivileged settings in urban cities in India. And for the Covid In Her Voice research, my role was to co-design and co-facilitate participatory processes with 25 girl leaders who are part of Empower Leaders Lab.

Deepika: And if you’re wondering what exactly Swarnlata means by marginalised here – she explained it further.

Swarnlata: They are marginalised because of their economic background, or their class, their gender, or caste, disability, religion, and so on. They live in very urban poor settings, mostly in slum areas of the cities, where getting the basic amenities like water, electricity is an everyday struggle for them. Majority of them live in very tiny houses or single rooms that they share with five or seven other family members. There are multiple issues girls were already facing even before the pandemic.

Arpita: Got it – Swarnlata and her organisation support girls from urban slums, from these marginalised communities to find their own voices and build their leadership skills. But what is the Covid: In Her Voice research that Swarnlata mentioned? 

Deepika: Well that’s what we’ll be discussing in detail today! And to help us talk about it in depth, we have one more very special person I need to introduce.

Shireen: My name is Shireen Ansari, and I’m 23 years old. And I was a member of EMpowers Leaders Lab from Mumbai.

Deepika: I spoke to Shireen who is a very articulate and confident young woman. She has a powerful voice, many reflections to share, and in typical Mumbai fashion, spoke in a mix of Hindi and English.

Arpita: She sounds delightful.

Deepika: Yeah and her self awareness is so high and the fact that she is able to step back, reflect on her life and take action towards the life she does want to live was so inspiring to hear about. 

Arpita: Well I sense that we have a lot of things to break down for me to understand this properly.

Deepika: Yes now that you’ve met the two people I spoke to, let me explain what the Covid in her voice research was all about. Soit’s a girl-led research into the impact of COVID-19 on marginalised girls and young women across 7 cities in India. And to conduct this research, EMpower didn’t just go and hire a bunch of researchers, instead they took a very different approach.

Swarnlata: At Empower, we believe that girls are the experts of their own lives. And they are best positioned to talk about their experiences, and their challenges, and not just about their challenges, but also possible solutions to their problems, and most importantly, guide all of us. I believe that nothing can be more authentic and right, than the lived experiences of people, and in this case, the girls. So that’s how we reached out to the girls, and not to someone or people who are formally trained to do this research.

Arpita: So empower actually invited adolescent and young girls from marginalised contexts to lead and conduct the research themselves – that’s what you meant by girl-led research.

Deepika: Exactly, so are you familiar with Roger Harts ladder of childrens participation?

Arpita: Yeah kind of – so Hart made this ladder on which he organised different levels of participation of youth in policy processes. The lowest rung was where there was no participation but manipulation and the highest rung was actually youth led conversations. 

Deepika: Exactly – so what EMpower wanted to do was have a research process and report that was totally led by young girls – the highest form of participation – but it recognised the fact that they would need training and support to take on that role. Hence, the Leader’s Lab was created. 

Swarnlata: It was a three month long process which was designed to provide training and support to girls to lead this research. So, all of them who came together to do this research, were first time researchers and our role was to facilitate a participatory processes for them to be able to conduct this research and play an active role in decision making at every stage of the state. They were involved in every decision regarding their study, right from designing the questionnaire to selecting the participants, conducting interviews in the field, analysing the data and mapping the stakeholders who they think were the best suited to act on their recommendations.

Arpita: That sounds really great.

Deepika: Really it did – and so I went step by step to understand how this study unfolded.

Shireen:First of all, we launched the leaders lab, where I was around 23, just like I said, I was 23 years old, but the girls we had in our group they were from at the age of 13, to 24 age group. And we were from Ahmedabad, Alwar, Bareiley, Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai and Pune – in different cities of India.

Deepika: Like Shireen says, the first step to the Leader’s Lab was to pick 25 young girls from 7 cities across India who would be studying the impact of Covid on their peers. 

Arpita: But tell me one thing before we go into the next step – what were Shireen’s own thoughts going into this space. I mean what did she feel about joining the Leader’s Lab. 

Deepika: Well here she is describing it in her own words – how the opportunity intrigued her and how the idea of meeting her own peers and making a report of their own based on their own experience was very exciting!

Shireen: first reason why I wanted to join this programme or be a part of it was this because I could see the changes and the effects of Covid or this pandemic in my life. I could see that okay, I’m just trapped here but I thought what if I’m – am I the only one who’s going through this? Or are there any other girls who are feeling the same thing like me? So I thought okay, kya kar sakte hain, kya ho sakta hai (what can be done, how can it be done) so let’s just find out because this is an opportunity for me to find out through this report. I could you know, explore and find out ki baki ladkiyon ko bhi aisa feel ho raha hai ya sirf main hi hun aisi ( if others girls are also feeling like this or it’s just me) so I thought theek hai (okay). But second part jo yeh research ka tha (second part of the research) which is the most exciting part for me was ki yeh report main girls (in this report, girls) were the researchers and girls in our community was the respondents. So basically agar mujhse meri koi problem puche (if someone asks my problems), if I were asked to share my problems main kiske saath jada achi tarah se share kar paungi (who will I be able to share it properly with)? A girl who is of my age living in my community going through the same thing as I am, toh main uske saath shyad jada comfortable hoti (so maybe I would be more confortable with her). Maybe ladkiyan jada open ho kar, jada khul kar bata pati ki kya kya ho raha hai unke saath lockdown main, ya kaisa unko feel ho raha hai (maybe the girls would be more open and speak more openly on what happened with them during the lockdown). So I thought ki yeh bahut exciting cheze hai (so I thought this was an exciting thing).

Arpita: So true really – any of us is more comfortable speaking about difficult experiences with our trusted friends and peers than some random stranger. 

Deepika: And in this very simple way of having the girl’s manage the whole journey of the report – EMpower has given the girl’s a sense of valuing their voice, their experience and their opinion.

Arpita: So what happened post the selection, I’m guessing it was time to begin the training process?

Deepika: Yes, the next step was to actually work with the girls to build a questionnaire. EMpower then curated and facilitated two sets of online masterclasses to equip the girl leaders with technical and soft research skills to actually conduct the research. 

Arpita: Right – cause research is also just about how you’re asking questions and responding to the person you’re speaking with. So after this step of prepping up?

Deepika: Then it was off to the field!

Shireen:Wherewe, the girl researchers, we went into the community during the long lockdown. And we interviewed, each leader had interviewed six girls, basically. So we interviewed and find out what was the impact on their life of the Covid-19.

Deepika: And after the girl leaders conducted this research interviewing six girls each as Shireen said – it was time to put together the data and begin the process of analysis and report writing. EMpower held a masterclass for the girl leaders where they shared key trends and findings with the group. They also brought in sector specialists to share their insights on the findings, but ultimately, the girl leaders took the call on what made it to the final report. 

Arpita: That is quite an intense process for the girls and I see why they call it a leader’s lab and not just a research lab cause through this long step by step process they’re not only building research skills for the project but really critical thinking skills, learning how to articulate problems, how to talk to people about shared concerns, build empathy and so much more as life skills!

Deepika: Exactly – as the organisation’s name goes, the heart of the process is empowering the girl’s to be leader’s within their own communities.

Arpita: So now that we understand the actual research process, let’s come to the outcomes. What did the girl’s figure out through this process?

Deepika: Well to truly understand what shifted for the girl’s during and after the pandemic – I wanted to first understand what their experience was before the pandemic from Shireen who was the girl leader from Mumbai.

Shireen: I live in Mumbai, born and brought up here, but when I say Mumbai, na people start to imagine the city life of here actually, but I live in Mumbai, slum of Mumbai actually called Dharavi.

We have the same problems like overpopulation, the population of the heart of Dharavi if you searched it as the BMC said during the lockdown, so the population is around 16 to 17 lakhs in that area. And we have this issues like not having enough space. So people here like myself will live in a house or one room only. So we have kitchen in that room only, we have the toilet spaces in that room only, so we live in a one room area only. And girls expected to stay at home and basically support their family and boys can go out whenever they want and whenever they can. So that’s the life and people here living here they are basically daily wagers because we are not.. majority of the people here are not literate enough. So basically we are.. most of them are daily wagers like they do leather work or they work in a factory, small factories, which is called in Hindi karkhane, so usme they work (there they work).

Deepika: To put that in perspective, Dharavi is considered one of Asia’s largest slumswith a density of 430 persons per square acre so there is already immense pressure on available resources. The other girl leaders also came from similar communities in other cities.  

Arpita: Right, so like we discussed even before the pandemic there were challenges the girls faced because of their difficult circumstances.

Deepika: Yes, and within these circumstances it’s important to point out that the girl’s experienced the impact of gender disparity as Swarnlata shared.

Swarnlata: So access to quality education has been an ongoing issue for girls in these communities. Majority of them go to government schools or poorly run private schools. And in case of any financial adversity, they are the ones whose education gets stopped first. Another issue which is related to this is school dropouts. And it increases with every phase of education for girls, due to increased household work, care work that they provide to their younger siblings, pressure to get married, etc. patriarchy and gender behaviour and attitude of our society that limits girls opportunities and agency to make decisions about their lives. There is still a preference given to boys over girls. And this lead to other connected issues like access to public spaces, restrictions on their mobility, restriction to go out. And they also face gender based violence when they try to exercise their choices and desires. So these are some of the things they were already facing. And due to this discrimination, gender discrimination, exclusion and marginalisation, which they were facing it just makes them invisible in their own cities and in their own communities. So their voices are not often heard by people.

Deepika: Steering clear of structures that have made young women like Shireen feel voiceless, I wanted to hear from her about what her day was like before the pandemic.

Shireen: Morning and afternoon, we used to go to continue our studies in the schools, before lockdown. And we used to go out for tuitions, or first to meet our friends. But in the evening, we were expected to work and work in the kitchen or serve with our mothers, or, you know, support our family basically. So that was our day, where we can go out sometimes not every day, but sometimes and if we had schools, so we were allowed to go out but only for schools. Other time we were expected to stay home. That was the life before Covid, before the lockdown.

Deepika: As Swarnlata mentioned earlier, care work was always a big part of Shireen’s day but there were moments of freedom, moments when she could get out and address her own needs – meet her friends, get an education, think about a future she could build for herself.  

Arpita: And did that change dramatically with the lockdowns?

Shireen: Living in the same room with my family of six members, it was kind of difficult because everyone was at home. And my siblings or my brothers, they were allowed to go out, they can meet their friends, or go out or play in the ground or stay in the open areas. But I was staying at home. So it was kind of.. my mental health was affected due to this because I was staying at home working and working. Same thing happening to my friends also they were staying at home also. And they were doing this work, work work. But I believe that lockdown was implemented on all of us, right?

Arpita: One room for six members and not getting a chance to get out at all for weeks on end sounds really hard!

Deepika: All the more when you consider that the girls like Shireen were pulled into doing endless loops of housework whereas the men and the boys were given some leeway in this matter. 

The other girls in the leader’s lab also came back with similar field outcomes. A 22 year old participant from Pune shared that while before the lockdown she only had to help her mother in the evening, she was now expected to work with her all day. Swarnlata shared the exact stats that emerged from the research.

Swarnlata: For girls, the pandemic has intensified the gender division of work. In the research 80% of girls said that the household work continued, continues to be their responsibility despite everyone being home during the lockdown. It’s not that the situation was very good before it and there was gender equality, we were aware of it, but what the pandemic did, it just increased the burden of work on girls. Out of this 80%, 71% said that they were getting help primarily from other female members or relatives from their families, and only 9% of male relatives were helping them in household chores, we could see the kind of imbalance, gender imbalances here as well.

Arpita: Right, so one of the really big outcomes was that there was a massive increase in care work for the girls.

Deepika: And don’t forget that strong sense of being trapped, of being isolated that we heard in Sania’s rap in the beginning which is echoed here by Shireen and her peers.

Shireen: Post lockdown it was everything was turned upside down because post lockdown abhi kisike ghar main nahi mil sakte (post lockdown we could not go to anyone’s house) and we do not have public space. Where boys can go but girls cannot go so kya karen (so what to do). Agar public space hoti toh (if we had public space then) we could have met on weekdays. But weekends pe hi milna tha aur Dharavi ke bahar jana ya Sion ya dusre area main (so we had only weekends and going outside Dharavi wasn’t feasible for us) it was difficult for us na. So har din nahi mil pate the sirf weekend pe but post lockdown woh bhi opportunity we had lost because abhi kahan jayen abhi toh ghar se bahar hi nikalne ko nahi mil raha (So we could not meet daily only on weekends but now where do we go, now we can’t even go outside our homes).

Deepika: They broadened it out in the Report to say that ‘COVID-19 has exacerbated existing gender inequities for adolescent girls and young women’. The lockdown not only increased unpaid care work, but also increased pressure for early marriage, increased exclusion and neglect, and closed up spaces for mutual support and solidarity.’ 

Arpita: I did come across multiple reports and articles saying how an increase in gender based violence at home took place because women and girls could not access safe spaces outside home and were often stuck 24/7 with their abusers.

Deepika: So much so that it was termed the shadow pandemic. And not just that you know – one of the girls also reported how she faced violence even while trying to use the shared community toilet resources, having instead to trudge much further for her own safety to access bathrooms. 

Arpita: Sounds so terribly isolating and hard for the girls. I have to ask though, because the new generation is so tech savvy, was it not possible for the girls to keep in touch through phones atleast or was that also not possible?

Deepika: It’s interesting that you ask that because, one of the things that came out in the conversation with Shireen was the lopsided and gendered access to technology and what that meant for the girls.

Shireen:  We were staying at home, even my friends were staying at home and my peers. So I could observe that everyone was staying at home aur jinke pass device tha we could sometimes chat with each other or had a call – jinke pass device tha we could chat or had a call. But jinkee pass device nahi hai so we had lost connect or lost connection with them.

Deepika: You know as it is – economic constraints mean that access to phones and computers is limited in slum households and within that also there is hierarchy of access. The Malala Foundation did a study in India to check on access to technology for education and found that Male family members often hold the authority at home and thus have the power to limit or deter girlsphone usage. Only 26% of girls said that they could access the phone present in the household whenever they wanted to, compared to 37% of boys. 

Arpita: So at a time when all the education systems shifted to online spaces, how did the girls manage? 

Deepika: That’s the thing – many didn’t. The leaders noted in the report that ‘many girls did not have the resources, technology, or equipment to attend digital school. They expressed having difficulty keeping up with their studies and could no longer interact directly with their teachers, or receive support from classmates.’ Swarnlata gives us the finer details here.

Swarnlata: 64% girls reported that they do not get time or have space to study online. So, everything has become online after the pandemic and all the students from any class, they are expected to just follow the same kind of method for learning, which is online learning. So, as it is learning became difficult for many of them, most of them had to like leave their studies because they had no resources to continue it. Their parents had lost their jobs, so they could not continue. In our data, in our resource, the data only 72% said that they have tools, but out of those 66% said that they find online learning difficult and 64% as I just mentioned 64% girls said that they do not have space or time.

Deepika: I was reading the World of Indias Girls or Wings 2022 report by Save the Children which reinforces what Swarnlata says. It found that 67% did not attend online classes during lockdowns. Or put differently, only one in three (33 per cent) girls attended online classes during the lockdown. Adolescent girls in urban slums were also deprived of basic health and education services compared to boys, over the course of pandemic.

And you know while stats are useful to get a sense of the big picture – it was this story Shireen shared with me of a young girl who lived near her place that really brought home what happened during the pandemic.

Shireen: My neighbour who lived with us for three, four years actually. So unke (she), she has actually two kids. Ek jo hain unka chota beta hain (one is her son), he is in fifth standard. And unki jo beti hai (her daughter) she is of my age around 19 years old, so she’s in college but what happened during the lockdown Auntie has the phone so unke pass ek hi device tha (aunty only had the device/phone) and her kid didn’t have access to the device. So online education thi, so Aunty told them.. maine (I), I observed that unki (their) mummy unse bol rahi hain ki (told them that) okay, let the boy study because he’s in fifth standard, and he needs to study and it’s okay if you she told her daughter that it’s okay if you miss your sessions or college lectures, because you know, you can help me in the kitchen and you can work with me and do other things. Because yahan pe sab log ghar main kuch na kuch karte hain (because everyone here does some work or the other in their homes). So unki mummy ne hi unko bola ki (so her mother told her that) it’s okay if you miss your lecture, but tumhare bhai ko karne do (but let your brother study because) it’s important for him.

Arpita: Wow -so the college going daughter’s education was de-prioritised for the son’s education.

Deepika: In fact this very serious concern about girl’s dropping out of education systems was echoed worldwide. Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Prize winner who is the co-founder and board chair of the Malala Fund and a passionate voice for girls’ education reinforced this point about the impact of the pandemic on girls’ education in an IMF meeting.

Malala:The world is facing a girls education crisis. There are 130 million girls out of school and this is a figure that comes from before the pandemic. Now, there are millions of more girls at risk of losing education because of the Covid-19 pandemic but also climate change and conflicts. When we were starting at 2020, we were thinking this would be a decade of delivery, we were hoping to see more progress, but unfortunately, because of these external shocks and lack of investment in education, we are seeing a reversal in the achievements and progress that has been made so far for girls education and Im worried about not seeing progress in the coming years. So it is a reminder to all of us that we need to accelerate our efforts towards girls education.

Arpita: I just can’timagine how tough it must have been – it’s the pandemic when already there is high anxiety over the possibility of falling seriously ill and then to top it you are relegated to your little home where there is no personal or recreational space or the possibility to connect with your friends and peers, you are on non-stop house duty to the point where you cannot even pursue your own education – 

Deepika: Exactly – so it comes as no surprise that another important arena that the girls covered in the report is about mental and physical well-being.

Swarnlata: 90% of girls told experiencing mental health distress and despair including depression, lack of confidence, loneliness, lingering sadness, etc. And many of them reported having negative thoughts and feeling of less motivation to do things which they would otherwise enjoy doing. So this is something we all should keep in mind and also should take this very seriously because whenever we think of slums and working with girls and children, I mean it’s mostly about education about gender equity, or providing basic amenities to them, but I think mental health is as important issue in their lives as other issues, and we, I mean, you could also see that all of these findings are interconnected, they are linked to each other.

Arpita: Absolutely agree with Swarnlata there – holistic well being is an outcome of multiple variables in a person’s life. 

Deepika: In fact the leaders noted in the report that most girls reported at least one mental health challenge and none of them had any information on coping mechanisms except expressing a desire to talk to their friends or teachers, instead of their family members.

And you know again there are other reports which back this experience of the girl leaders, for example, The Alone Together Report by NGO Aangan which took a similar approach of adolescent girls and young women interviewing their peers specifically on the impact of loneliness exacerbated by the pandemic in their lives.

Arpita: And what did they find?

Deepika: That 84% of those interviewed said they experienced recurring loneliness and that for 67%, the most challenging aspect of the lockdown was the absence of any kind of social interaction. 

To add to this, it became tougher to access basic healthcare services as resources were diverted because of COVID-19. So already vulnerable communities were now more at risk. Combined with economic pressures, affording health services and menstrual products became even more difficult.  

Arpita: The girls really worked hard to shine light on each facet of their complex experience of the pandemic.

Deepika: Yeah but i think we come to the next really powerful aspect of this whole endeavour. Now that the girl leaders had got clear outcomes from their research, a bunch of ideas emerged on how things needed to be done differently and from those ideas emerged a desire to make their voice heard and to reach out to the policy and decision makers.

Shireen: Toh jo policies, existence may hain, maybe usme changes ane chahiye, because ladkiyon ko unse behtar koi nahi janata. At least practitioners and policy makers ko puchna chahiye ki unko samasya kya hai aur uska solution ya hal kya ho sakta hai. So, I think this is the first aspect of our research, ki reform karo, changes lao hamari policies main. (So the policies that exist, those must be changed because who knows girls better than themselves. At least practitioners and policy makers should ask what their problems are and what the possible solutions might be. So I think this is the first aspect of out research, that bring reform, bring changes in our policies.)

Second aspect is transform. Transform is basically ki koi policy hai jo kam hi nahi kar rahi hain,if you think that this is not going to work and our problem is way difficult and very different than this and this is not the solution then I think unko uss problem ke liye, samasya ka hal completely change karna chahiye. (Transform is basically that if some policy is not working or difficult or way different then they should completely change their approach to the problem.)  

Teesra aspect hameri research ka hai, it is aspire. Aspire. Jahan pe ladkiyon ne kia hai ki hamari batein suno, hamari samasya suno aur aap dekho ki uska hal kya hai jo hamari recommendations main hain. (This aspect of our research is Aspire. Aspire – where you need to listen to us girls and our problems and see how we’ve looked to resolving them in our recommendations.)

Deepika: As Shireen explained their main clarion call was to Reform, Transform and Aspire. By Reform they implied bringing in incremental changes that can immediately be made to existing policies, schemes or interventions; By the word Transform they implied bringing in new ideas; and finally Aspire was a call to bring in visionary ideas which can help realise the vision that the girls are suggesting.

Arpita: That is powerfully put and really a concept that speaks to the true spirit of democratic decision making which should ideally keep the demands and aspirations of the common people at the heart of policy making! 

Deepika: Indeed – the report points out that the beginning of change is to give the girls a seat at the table of decision making, ensure that they are heard by decision makers and other stakeholders. 

Arpita: Okay, so what kind of recommendations are we talking about here? 

Deepika: Well an important arena of conversation as Swarnlata put it, was education.

Swarnlata: They want us to provide resources, create enabling spaces for them, to continue their education. Think about their future and also think about their dreams. They’re also saying that, that work with the community so that we are, we become able to work on our dreams and our future And when they were saying that, okay, invest in our education, create resources, create opportunities for us, what they were also saying was that do all of this so that we become independent, we feel confident to speak up, we feel confident to form our own opinion. We feel safe in our own communities.

Deepika: Swarnlata explained that the girl’s spoke about education a lot as they could see how it was central to building a better future for themselves and how it was inter-related to other issues.

A key ask was for education to be made free for girls till class XII because it allows them to have greater bargaining power at home and with parents to be able to say: ‘Its taken care of, let me continue to study.’ And just by being able to do that they’re able to push away the pressures of early marriage and are able to access peers and teachers in the outside world.

Arpita: Of course, makes perfect sense. It’s amazing how one little step can bring in so much change. 

Deepika: When I was looking through the report I realised that the girl’s had taken a lifecycle approach to it – where in their recommendations they covered the need for ensuring that girl’s firstly are brought up in neighbourhoods which have the requisite resources to provide them with genuine opportunities of growth and well-being. This spanned everything from ensuring access to basic infrastructure like bathrooms, to educational facilities, counselling support and even access to equal public spaces, as Shireen puts it here.

Shireen:As I said, we do not have access to a public space. So actually public spaces open for everybody even for the girls and for the boys. But it is completely occupied by the men or males. Agar ladkiyan jayengi bhi toh (if girls go also) they are not feeling safe. So I think ke in each community, there should be a space only for girls. Toh transform karo policy ko (So transform the policy there). Public space hai par ladkiyon ke liye hai kya (public spaces are there but not for girls) – jahan woh ja sake wahan woh mil sake (where they can go and they can meet). Har roz friends ke ghar pe ya sirf weekends pe milna is not okay (going to a friends place daily or only meeting on weekends is not okay). Toh aisi koi jagah hai (so we need to find a space) to transform that thing.

Deepika: And from that developmental phase the report then extends to looking towards their future where recommendations have been made for policies and programmes that ensure better and safer mobility for girls through the city, skill-building and training for improving job prospects, leadership training – really there is so much thought and detail there!

And having done all this reflective work – the girls have shown us the possibilities and the path to supporting young girls to live up to their full potential. Now, as Swarnlata put it – the ball is in our court.

Swarnlata: Girls have talked about their issues, the challenges which they are facing, or they were facing, even before the pandemic, and its impact on their lives and their recommendations. Now, we have big responsibilities to raise resources for making those recommendations real. And, yeah, so we need to, we need to work on those recommendations now. And when I say we, it’s all of us. It’s the donor organisation, its government, it’s city planners, corporates, civil society and communities. So all of us have to work towards.. to make those recommendations real and build a society where girls feel safe, safer, confident, feel that they belong here.

Arpita: I don’t think anyone could disagree with Swarnlata there. When we speak of cities and the well-being of all, we need to give special attention to the voices and thoughts of those marginalised within these spaces. And now that we have heard from them – each of us is responsible within our own capacities to consider how we can build towards their dreams.

Although this has been a difficult conversation, I must admit its also been refreshing and lovely just to be able to hear and witness how the girls themselves have transformed through this process of the leader’s lab into advocates for their own and the rights of others be it girls and women and even their own larger communities! 

Deepika: Truly – all the more as through this conversation I actually got to hear Shireen speak so articulately for herself. Really her own journey is so inspiring because it also reflects so much of the everyday struggle and bias that women across geographies experience, and yet how clear she is about what needs to change and why that’s urgent.

So it seems fitting to end with these beautiful words from her.

Shireen: I would like to share a quote by Meghan Markel, as she said, women don’t need to find a voice, they have a voice. They need to feel empowered to use it, and people need to encourage to listen to it. With that said, I think this is my answer to your question basically, because women ke pass unko awaz dhundne ki zaroorat nahi hai (women don’t need to search for their voices), they have a voice. Unko sirf log chahiye jo unki awaz sunane ke liye tayar hon (They only need someone who will listen to them). Aur ladkiyon ko himmat chahiye apni awaz aage tak lane ke liye (And girls need to be courageous to bring their voices to forefront).

Outro: To know more about the experiences of adolescent girls and young women during the lockdown, read EMpower’s Covid In Her Voice report. You can also read NGO Aangan’s Alone Together report which is an action research paper on urban adolescents, loneliness and the challenges they were facing in the lockdown. We’d also like to thank Saniya Mistrii whose rap you heard in the beginning of this episode that’s so powerful and poignant. 

In our next episode, we’re excited to hear from Deepa Mohan, well known birder and naturalist guide based in Bangalore who is a mentor and inspiration to many people by deepening their interest in nature, birding and wildlife thanks to her walks. Don’t forget to listen in!

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This podcast was created by Srinidhi Raghavan, Deepika Khatri and Arpita Joshi. The sound editing was by Vijay Chawla.