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Our Work with Girls

A Voice That is Heard - Seema’s Story

EMpower’s work raises girls’ voices and supports them as leaders. Watch the video above to hear how EMpower supports girls – always has, always will.

One young woman creating change in her community is Seema, an EMpower Adolescent Girls Learning Community member and a Girls Advisory Council girl leader in Mumbai. Seema shines with determination and is pursuing her undergraduate degree. But, as a girl growing up in Mumbai facing gender-based discrimination, she did not always see this future for herself. Read Seema’s story:

I remember the day my new life began. It was in 2008. I was nine years old, and my parents introduced me to Vacha Charitable Trust, a nonprofit in my community that has been an EMpower grantee partner for many years. There I met girls who were filled with enthusiasm and joy. They were friendly and talkative, while I was shy and kept to myself. I found it hard to mingle with them initially. But as days turned into months, Vacha and these girls became an integral part of my life. Within a year, I became bold, confident, social and, most importantly, lively.

Within a year, I became bold, confident, social and, most importantly, lively.

Vacha focuses on girls and girlhood, and envisions a world without exploitation, oppression and discrimination against girls and women. The word ‘Vacha’ translates to speech, articulation and self-expression. This is apt, because by signing me up for classes at Vacha, my parents wanted me to experience something new, discover my sense of individuality and break the walls I had built around myself. We performed street plays, organized rallies and workshops on issues such as shrinking open spaces and access to education – matters that directly affect us. I came to understand that gender-based discrimination is not always explicit – it also operates in a discreet fashion. For example, when men in households are served more chapatis (flat bread) because of a commonly-held perception that they do more physical work than women. Participating in the activities at Vacha and publicly raising the issues that affect us provided me a sense of satisfaction as we took it upon ourselves to find solutions.

In my fourth year at Vacha, I met two people from EMpower that I consider very important in my life – Nisha Di and Cynthia Di (Di is a contraction of the word Didi, a term in Hindi which means elder sister) I met them through the Adolescent Girls Learning Community in Mumbai, an EMpower initiative that Vacha coordinates. Their happy faces and cheerful smiles made me less anxious about joining something that was completely new for me. Through the Learning Community, EMpower transformed the classroom into an all-girls platform enabling adolescent girls like myself to work in a team, to learn from each other’s experiences and challenges, and to find ways of addressing the issues that affect us the most. We set out to reclaim public spaces – be it a playground, a gymnasium, a gaming station or even a ‘chai ki tapri’ (a roadside tea stall – in India, the tea stall has historically been a site where boys and men gather to have intellectual discussions over copious amounts of tea).

Today, I have completed seven years with the Learning Community. Together, my friends and I have led rallies, conducted surveys, performed plays and flash mobs, created parent groups, and met with municipal officials to highlight our issues. Recently, the Learning Community organized a press conference where we presented a Charter of Demands before the media about our concerns regarding the lack of access to toilets, playgrounds and an insufficient number of newsstands in our communities. The Learning Community is not just a program, it is the voice of every girl who may be unable to actively join the community. We have reached out to numerous communities over the years, forming a network that is representative of the diverse and common problems that girls face across the city. Collective efforts like this always shine, and if the problems of even one community are resolved, it becomes a moment of happiness for all of us.

Not only has EMpower given me a platform to make my voice heard, it has also given me wings to fly…

Not only has EMpower given me a platform to make my voice heard, it has also given me wings to fly to new states and meet new people. In 2018, I made my first trip to Delhi as part of the Girls Advisory Council. It is a girl-led initiative where we are the advisors and often the decision-makers. At the Girls Advisory Council launch meeting last year, where I was representing Vacha, I met fellow girl leaders from organizations all over India that are supported by EMpower. The time spent with these girls, who are now my friends, has been the best time of my life. We spent three days last year and then this year too, brainstorming ideas and making recommendations to EMpower to strengthen its work with young people not only in India, but also globally. As a girl leader on the Council, I always feel like my opinion matters. Earlier this year, EMpower facilitated a panel review process for Girls First Fund in Ranchi, and six of us from the Girls Advisory Council constituted the panel, speaking to nonprofits about their efforts to end child marriage in the state of Jharkhand. As part of the panel, I learnt so much about this issue, its seriousness and the innovative ways in which organizations are working to put an end to it.

Today, I see EMpower not just as an organization working with young people; it evokes many positive emotions in me. Next year, a new batch of Girls Advisory Council leaders will come on board and we will pass the baton to them. While saying goodbye to my friends after the meeting this year, I felt sad – like something very special from my life would go missing next year onwards. But I know that I will stay in touch with my friends and EMpower in some way or the other. I want to make sure that I am able to share my experience and knowledge gained here with other girls. I am currently pursuing my undergraduate degree in arts and wish to pursue a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai, so that I can work in the development space and connect with girls around the world.

I am aware that many girls, even in my own city, are not allowed to have dreams and aspirations. So I am thankful to my parents who have never let societal norms get in the way of my growth. I also want to express my heartfelt thanks to EMpower for providing me with the platforms like the Learning Community and the Girls Advisory Council to help bring out the actual Seema.

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