My identity rant:
In a recent conversation with one of my relatives, I was told that reading too many books is not good for me, I won't find a husband to which I responded with a long monologue in my own head making a declaration of my feminist values, my rights, agency and freedom of thought. I wanted to deliver the famous Jo March dialogue from Little Women, Louisa May Alcott's book that made an indelible impression upon me as a young girl, Jo says, "Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they've got ambition, and they've got talent, as well as just beauty. I'm so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for."
I wanted to say all of it, I wanted her to see me as I see myself and as I see my life. All I ended up saying was, "Aap nahi samjhoge, yahan sab businessmen hain aur mujhe kabhi yahan belonged mehsus nahi hua hai." A few moments before, she had 'othered' me and by saying what I said, in a moment, I 'othered' her. We both went back to our comfort zones; what could have become a portal to have a deep conversation remained a closed door. But that's the thing with identity, it is complex. Even when I have to start breaking it down for myself:
"I am 28 years old, I am a woman, I was born and brought up in Delhi, I come from a partitioned family, I have grown up in an upper-middle-class environment, caste was never discussed in my family because we come from a privileged caste, I have for the most part of my life attended private education, I have spent last five years of my life working in the development sector, poetry keeps me breathing, learning languages make me travel to different worlds, surely politics lie at the heart of most of my conversations hence, I am also political, I am curious, I am introverted, I largely reside in my own world of imagination, I am a Muslim, I am a feminist and while I am all of this, I am a daughter, a sister, a friend, a cat and dog parent and a lover. I feel most at home when I am writing, so I guess, I am a writer…."
Okay, I can go on & on but the point is that trying to decipher my own identity is a complex process, and this is just my perception of myself, each person I have a relationship with picks and sees the part of me that they want to see and talk to. Today, I at least have a language in which I can communicate some of it. Back in my adolescence days, I didn't even have a language to communicate what I felt and why. However, the struggle of identity is personal as well as political, it is related to self as well as society.
In the book, Seeing Like a Feminist, Nivedita Menon writes,
"When one 'sees' the world like a feminist, with the gaze of a feminist, it's rather like activating the 'Reveal Formatting' function in Microsoft Word. It reveals the strenuous, complex formatting that goes on below the surface of what looked smooth and complete."
Let's look at the facts and the larger narrative:
While it is now widely accepted that a 'people-centric' approach should be an integral part of any development effort, the complexities within the identity of an individual are often overlooked which acts as a hindrance in being able to build a safe and enabling environment for adolescents and young people. For instance, as per the latest UDAYA (Understanding the lives of adolescents and young adults) report published by Population Council in March 2020 which aimed at profiling the situation of adolescents and change in their situation over time along with assessing the quality of transition from adolescence to adulthood, one of the insights is that marriage disrupts the mobility of girls in short term. Since the objective was to profile the situation of adolescents over a period of time, the data was firstly collected in 2015-16 and then in 2018-19 from a state representative of 20000+ adolescents from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The report further stated that while girls who remained unmarried at both waves reported an increase in mobility as they grew older, those who had transitioned to marriage by the time of the second wave of the survey reported a significant reduction in mobility (almost 20%), mobility being one of the parameters to map 'agency'.
Let's look at this data point in light of the current COVID-19 situation and a report that was published by NUEPA (National University of Educational Planning and Administration) 2016:
A recent policy brief by the UN stated that almost 24 million children are at risk of not returning to school next year due to the economic fallout of COVID-19. It also stated that though this phenomenon has been observed all across the world, the 'poor' countries are the worst hit where 86% of children at the primary level have been effectively out of school, compared to 20% in highly developed countries. Even amongst those affected, adolescent girls are the most vulnerable as this puts them at a higher risk of child marriage, early pregnancy and gender-based violence as short-term disruptions often lead to permanent drop-out for education amongst adolescent girls. Girls may also be required to undertake additional household responsibilities as parents increase their own labour hours to cope with economic distress. Similarly, these economic shocks are likely to have a greater impact on children from communities that are marginalized on the basis of their caste, tribe and religion, and already experience higher dropout rates (NUEPA 2016). The UDAYA data indicates that all these factors ultimately contribute towards the agency and autonomy of young girls. While words like 'agency', 'growth' & 'safe spaces' have become buzz words in the mainstream discourse on gender equality & adolescence development, serious thought about the intersectionality angle without which an enabling environment and safe space cannot be actualized is almost invisible in the policy discourse.
For instance, this is reflective in the latest debate around the proposed policy change on child marriage. As per an article in the Indian Express from August 2020 about the proposed policy change by the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare around the plausibility of increasing the legal marriage age for women from the present 18 years to 21 years, the experts pointed that while there has been a drastic decline in early marriages, this is in the category of girls who are 12-14 years. The marriages are now taking place on the cusp of what is legal, so from the ages of 16-18 years. In Jharkhand, specifically with the scheduled caste and tribal communities, it is found that in some pockets, girls getting married under the age of 18 years is as high as 60 per cent. The experts highlighted that the decision to increase the age of marriage will not have the desired effect of gender parity without associated access to education for girls, especially for girls in the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. However, the current discussion at the policy level is still solely based on the age angle, not taking into consideration the other factors and treating almost 111 million adolescent girls as a homogenous group. This remains the dominant narrative across the policy-making domain for adolescent girls where their own voice and representation is missing.
But what can be done?
For development to happen, one needs to take into consideration the fact that the annihilation of hegemonic socio-economic structures such as caste, class and patriarchy need to go hand in hand considering the complex reality of a country like India. While we develop a human-centric approach to development, the eco-system needs to accept and accommodating the complexities and intersectionalities in the identity of individuals. The responsibility of creating an enabling environment cannot be the responsibility of adolescents and young people alone.
To make sense of this complexity, vartaLeap came together as a cross-sectoral, collaborative space for co-learning with a combined experience of 1200+ years in youth work and is taking this discourse forward at scale with soul, which they call 'scoul' to move youth-centric development from the margins. They aspire to make it a new norm in every space that young people occupy or that impacts young people. Taking their vision forward, they initiated a campaign called #GenNationBuilding and created the crowdsourced Youth Rights and Duties Draft Declaration. The campaign seeks to engage young people, parents, communities, educators, institutions, employers, corporates, media houses, UN Agencies, civil society organizations and others in a collaborative dialogue to co-create the right space, context and narrative for the youth of this country. Over 5000 people have been reached through this campaign since its inception in November 2020 who have been engaged in a deep dialogue around the complex identity, rights and duties of young people. Over 1100 young people and youth engaging organisations have signed the Youth Duties and Rights Declaration till now.
Some of the key points that we have learnt are:
- Bringing together the global discourse and amplification & strengthening of grassroot voices:While it is essential to take inspiration from the global discourses such as Sustainable Development Goals, ICPD etc, it is equally important to contextualize the discourse as per the local grassroots realities that would take into consideration structures such as caste, gender, religion etc. For instance, one of the vartaLeap members, Agrini Samaj Kalyan Samiti is a non-profit working on education, leadership and constitutional literacy. They participate in local elections and movements and help candidates build their manifestos. They primarily work with the Adivasi communities and hence, bring in their voices in the manifesto. They do this keeping in mind the framework of the Constitution, SDGs, ICPD etc but contextualize their work which ensures more representation.
- Ensuring empathetic listening & inclusive leadership:During one of the intergenerational dialogues at vartaLeap, a young student shared that she wanted to attend a protest on an issue that she was passionate about. However, there were strict instructions from her college stating that they don't support any such initiatives and the students were not encouraged to join the protest. She said that she felt frustrated and angry due to this but it also brought in feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. As per the Indian Constitution, an individual is allowed to be a part of public protests but here, the system is not enabling them to practice their rights which further hinders them from practising their duty of being an active citizen. The vartaLeap conversation she had with one of the people from Oxfam helped her to see how she can articulate how she feels as well as being more confident in her own value judgment and building a support system for herself. These spaces ensure that the voices of young people are being heard and the leadership is inclusive by nature.
In her book, the Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote, "Action, as distinguished from fabrication, is never possible in isolation; to be isolated is to be deprived of the capacity to act." The closed doors can indeed become portals by embracing the diverse identities of individuals and not looking at different narratives in isolation, and by ensuring that we are listening, listening authentically.