There was something about Roopa that left me wanting to observe her from close. Her sparkling eyes and enchanting smile prodded my instincts to probe more into her whereabouts and her as a person. It could have been her clever maneuvers on the number hopscotch that caught my attention or her attentiveness in the classroom sessions. She was part of a group of 88 adolescent girls chosen from the 51 villages of Koppal in North Karnataka, as part of the Role-Model Adolescent Girls Project nick-named Sphoorthi, under the aegis of the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust and the Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiative. The girls were in Koppal to attend the three-day leadership camp at the Gnanabandhu English Medium Residential School.
I noticed that leadership came naturally to Roopa, she was the first to raise a hand when the class was asked to nominate a leader among them. I watched her as she devised strategies for the various activities. Her crinkling eyes and arching brows whenever the team faced a challenge or her willingness to help her team or anyone outside the team, attested the fact that she was capable of leading and inspiring her peers without much effort.
She cared less about her own self, as was evident from the split ends on her long brown hair and the occasional limping owing to the cracks on her feet.
I called out to her and expressed my interest of speaking to her and knowing a little more about her while she was engrossed in playing a game of throwing a ring onto a target and winning it. She turned back and nodded swiftly, eyes squinted, she said “Miss, this is my third try, I want to win that bunch of rubber bands”. Saying thus, she turned and aimed at the bunch of rubber bands only to miss it. I walked up to her and asked her to try one last time. With glistening eyes and a strong resolve, she aimed at the rubber bands and finally managed to capture the rubber bands.
We then sat by the school veranda. While she was playing with the rubber bands and throwing the bunch in the air and catching it before it could land on the ground, she said gleefully, “I am so happy miss I won these rubber bands after trying so much. My mother always tells me; if you want something, you should work hard to achieve it and should never give up”. I then tell her, “Roopa, you can call me aunty”, she shies away and calls me aunty with great reluctance. She then pulls her cousin Sangeetha towards her and asks her to sit next to her and says, “Miss, we are sisters, we do everything together. We even eat from the same plate. Together, we want to change certain norms in our house and our village”. “I want to be a doctor and she wants to be a police officer”, says Roopa, clinging on to her cousin and swaying rhythmically to the left and right.
“But our grand uncle does not want us to study after tenth grade. He says, what will you women do after studying so much. Who will take care of your household and your children”, Says Sangeetha and Roopa in unison.
In our subsequent conversations, I get to know that Roopa had scored 90 percentage in her 9th grade and that she wants to stay in a hostel and study for her 10th grade. She hails from an affluent family of zamindars and they own a large tract of land. Her uncle is the head of the family against whom nobody dares to raise a finger. He refused to build a toilet in the house or near the premises, saying it is against the conventional norms. The women in the house, even to this day, walk for kilometers in their fields to find a private and safe place for defecation.
She was so embarrassed that she could not look into my eyes while we were having this conversation. She tells me, being a role-model herself, she was unable to do anything to persuade her uncle to do something about the toilets but, she refuses to give up.
“Miss, I am fine with walking for kilometers and defecating in the open, but come what may, I want to continue my studies.” “Maybe once I become a doctor and start treating patients for diseases occurring out of lack of hygiene, my uncle might agree to build toilets in our home.”, she says impishly.
Roopa was introduced to Sphoorthi through her mother’s friend who is a community organizer. There was a selection process that happened in Hosalli, the village that she hails from. She says that she feels so much empowered and happy being a part of Sphoorthi. Everyone in her village looks forward to the weekly meetings. They take immense pride in representing their village as role-models of Sphoorthi. They believe that together, they can bring about change. They are empowered to influence their peers, friends and family alike. They also have high regard for the opposite sex who are part of the Sphoorthi project, whose thinking has changed drastically as a result of the exposure they have got and the awareness about the perils of early marriage and early adoption of familial responsibilities.
While we continue chatting about her hobbies and favorite films and actors and I share mine too, it is time for them to pack their bags and leave. Just then, she clenches my hand and says, “Miss, I want to study, I want to become someone worthwhile in life. I want to be able to travel like you and do things that I want to do”. I tell her, she is already doing what she wants to do. She needs to believe in herself and take on any opposition boldly. She nods and says that she is glad that her parents are supportive, but fears if they will be constrained by the restrictions from the head of the family. I assure her that there are so many people to support her and that she should never digress from her goal. Sphoorthi is her companion for a lifetime and that she can always fall back on Sphoorthi for any help and support. She takes down my number and I take down hers. We hug gently and bid goodbye.
By Sheena Lakshmi