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The Power Puff Girls

The Power Puff Girls

Author: Mini Pant Zachariah
Publications: Hindustan Times
Date: July 20, 2008

Introduction: Amidst the squalor of slums in Dharavi, young girls are scripting stories of hope and aspiration to ensure a better future for women

On July 1 this year, despite the heavy downpour, some girls from the Dharavi slum trudged to the Kishori Project, a Federation of Gynaecologists Society of India (FOGSI) initiative, to participate in a painting competition. The theme was close to their heart: Save the girl child.

In the slums where they live, being born a girl is often considered a curse. A girl is a financial burden, confined to their homes till they are married off. Education is not a priority, financial independence unheard of and her health of scant concern.

But Kishori Project (KP), started by Dr Dhuru Shah in 2001, is slowly changing that. Dr Shah, a specialist in infertility, got interested in female healthcare when as the joint secretary of FOGSI she studied perinatal deaths in India. She decided that better healthcare had to start with the education of future mothers and thus KP for adolescent girls was born. Since sex is a taboo subject in most parts of India, Dr Shah used the word reproductive education.

We meet these young girls, aged mostly between 15 and 20 at the Lokmanya Tilak Hospital in Dharavi, where the KP is housed. Their black burqas neatly stacked away, 30 or so girls are busy acquiring skills that would help them in life. Some are make intricate henna patterns on the hand while five others are peddling away at the sewing machines stitching blouses and petticoats. Elsewhere, eager faces stare at the screen as the instructor talks them through the basics of computer operation. Later in the day, there will be more girls coming for a beauti cian's course.

What would they be doing if they were not here learning these skills? "Cooking, cleaning and sitting at home," comes the pat reply from Rani Khan, 21, from Mahim East. Says Khan, "My family does not allow me to take up a regular job but I can still earn a living imparting the skills I learnt here to other girls in my locality." She has learnt henna designs, fabric painting, sewing and done the beauticians' course at the KP.

Khan works as a peer educator for the KP. Bright girls with leadership quality from the community are trained as peer educators to further spread reproductive health awareness in the community . Khan, like the other peer educators Shabnam Abdul Hamid, talks to the adolescent girls who come to the KP centre about basic hygiene, menstruation, pregnancy and contraception.

"Our mothers either do not know about these things or don't talk to us about them. Peer educators and doctors here tell us about a lot of things through games and films," says 19-year-old Shamim Sayyed while 17-year-old Madhavi Makwana adds, "Before I came here, my source of information was my friends who themselves knew very little." KP is an FOGSI initiative in collaboration with Sion Hospital, Intregrated Child Development Scheme, UNICEF and an NGO called Sneha. Dr Suchitra Pandit, who has been with the project since its inception, says, "The basic idea of the Kishori Project is to empower the adolescent girls to help them face life."

And empowerment came a year ago when the girls from the KP managed to stall the wedding of a minor Haseena, 16, in the community. When the peer educators reasoned with Haseena's family to wait till she was 18, her parents told them not to meddle with what the elders had decided on. The peer educators convinced their own parents to speak to Haseena's parents and the marriage was stalled. "These girls are our torch bearers," says an emotional Dr Pandit.

The girls know what they need best. Rekha Sonavane, 24, who lives in Indranagar says that the girls need martial art training. "We need to protect ourselves. We need to learn these self-defence techniques so that we can step out with confidence," she says. And going by the 'ayes' for such a course, it seems there are many of these girls who are just waiting to step out.

- mini.zachariah@hindustantimes.com

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