Today is the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (the largest marathon in Asia) and advertisements being splashed all over Mumbai, a pertinent question to ask is the whether all the talk about marathons being used to promote social causes is at all relevant or whether it is just some feel-good publicity? My mind raced back to last month’s Pinkathon Marathon for women (India’s biggest women’s run), where we ladies from CORO participated for the first time, in the 3 km Category.
There were 18 of us: some from CORO, others who were from our beneficiary communities. A fortnight prior to the event, there was palpable excitement in the air – for many of them this would be a first-time run/walkathon. They were super-excited: some of them buying sneakers for the first time, others borrowing them, getting our CORO emblazoned T-shirts and banners designed. For some, it was to be their first experience of wearing T-shirts and track pants. Since many of these ladies come from traditional Muslim families and communities living in Mumbai’s slums, this simple step was actually quite a challenging one.
And then on the event day, at the crack of dawn as we arrived in the Marathon grounds, we saw thousands of women dancing to the tunes of catchy beats, and our ladies too danced full of gusto and exuberant spirits! Some of our participants stay in the slums of Govandi and Shivajinagar in Mumbai where there are no such free and safe spaces for taking walks or running; hence this event was indeed a very liberating experience and a big deal for them!
Watching their glowing faces as they walked proudly carrying our CORO banners displaying the triple themes of Women Empowerment, Gender Equality and Empowering Grassroots Leaders, I realised the importance of such little gestures of demonstrating independence, bonding with other women, walking and running with a free spirit, all of which give our women a sense of empowerment, solidarity and courage. And we see this theme being repeated in each of our programs– where every little intervention that we conduct, accumulates drop by drop into a life-changing experience not just for our change-makers and beneficiaries, but even for families, neighbours and communities with whom they interact, influence and transform.
We see this in our Gender Sensitization Program Meena Raju Manch which we are running in districts like Beed and Jalna which have the worst gender-ratios (807 and 870 girls respectively, per 1000 boys) in Maharashtra, far below the national average of 918 girls per 1000 boys. We see examples of girls like 13 year old Asmira Shaikh who gradually realises after our program intervention, how she and the women in her family face a lot of restrictions while boys are given all the freedom; a fact that she had earlier thought was normal and accepted blindly. But as she understood the importance of gender equality, she got the courage to share her learnings with her parents and convinced them of the significance of equal opportunities for girls and boys. Slowly the stringent rules for women in her home (including wearing the Burkha) started reducing, brothers and sisters were allowed to play together without parents’ censure and Asmira’s brother and father gradually started helping in household chores – a hitherto unheard of fact in a village community!
Or take the case of 14 year old Prachi who was from a similar conservative family in a village. When Prachi started attending the Meena Raju Manch sessions in her school, she began looking at her life from a different perspective and realized that women have equal rights to work. She took responsibility of conducting activities in school in which till then only boys participated, like forming a girls’ musical band and encouraging other girls to take part. At home, her father was the only one who used to do outdoor chores, but Prachi started doing those tasks herself – like purchasing food supplies for the family, taking family members who were unwell to the hospital etc. She also helped convince parents of children who had discontinued their education to re-admit them to school. A series of small steps but with far-reaching positive consequences influencing her family and her neighbours.
In our Women Empowerment program on Domestic Violence, we work with 8000 families in urban slums of Mumbai and in villages. Throughout the year we conduct small activities, meetings, discussions, events with every member of the family, which helps us identify social norms which are the root cause of domestic violence. We challenge these social norms and convince all family members to change these norms. An extremely difficult endeavour no doubt, because how does one change mindsets and social norms prevailing for generations? But we painstakingly persevere and hope that gradually over months and years, more and more families will change their attitudes and transform their way of thinking.
And we do see changes in social norms being demonstrated in small ways: We see fathers now allowing their teenaged daughters to play in the local playgrounds where traditionally only boys would play, and also allowing them the freedom of pursuing higher education. We see mothers and their daughters participating in a Sports Day and kicking a football or holding a hockey stick for the first time in their lives!
In our rural communities we see examples of women cleaning up the local playground and deciding to convert it into an open-air gym for all women to use, and setting up open-air Reading Corners for women to come and read newspapers, where earlier only men would gather to play cards.
We observe how Domestic Violence was earlier perceived as a personal matter to be confined within family walls with only occasional soothing words and sympathy being offered by neighbours to the suffering wife. While now after two years of intervention we are seeing people in our slum communities realising the need for this issue to be discussed openly in the community. We see examples of men coming forward to participate in task-forces created in each neighbourhood to counsel husbands and stand as a pillar of strength to support the suffering wife.
And thus our attempts go on, as we take one baby step after another ……and wait and watch patiently as these small mind-transforming interventions bear fruit years later: when our adolescent children grow into confident and caring youths; or when families steeped in archaic attitudes acknowledge the folly of their beliefs and give up hindering social norms, to support their daughters’ and wives’ ambitions and embrace a progressive and respectful attitude towards all.
Today, on the eve of the Mumbai marathon, CORO has runners participating in the Marathon as its representatives for the first time ever. I can say with conviction that such small steps and symbolic gestures are very important and actually help galvanise people to act. As an anonymous writer has said, “If we triumph in the little things of our common hours, we are sure to triumph in our lives.”
CORO (Committee of Resource Organisations) is a 26 year old non-profit working in the areas of Grassroots Leadership Development, Gender sensitization and Women Empowerment. With commendable work in marginalized communities, especially women, CORO has won several awards, the latest one for their program on Single Women’s Empowerment, in collaboration with EdelGive Foundation (Edelweiss Financial Services Ltd.) – the FICCI CSR Award for Women Empowerment 2016. You may visit CORO’s website: www.coroindia.org