Girls have been invited to the Action for Equality session with boys today so the girls can discuss the issues they are facing in the community and come up with solutions to address the problem. They are accompanied by a maushi from their neighbourhood because it’s after dark and girls are not allowed out so late. Huddled in a small yet colourful Anganwadi room, the air is tense because despite all the preparations, the boys are thrown off by the presence of girls and no one wants to take the first step to welcome everyone and start the session.

14 year old Tushar, an Action for Equality participant, comes to the rescue and starts the programme by talking about what Equal Community Foundation does and why it is important, setting the tone for the rest of the session. Drawing confidence from him, one by one, the other boys too start to introduce themselves and begin to take the lead to take the session forward.

The Mentors Amar and Mahesh are present to support the boys and roll out a chart paper that has been divided into four parts. Prathmesh, one of the participants, gave his class 10 board exam today and has another exam a day later but made it a point to be present for the session. He hands out chits of paper to the girls so they can first write about the things they like about their community and these he places in the first quarter of the chart paper.

“We like that there are fresh fruits and vegetables readily available”, writes 11 year old Neetu (name changed), while Sunita (name changed) writes “there is water and electricity”.

Next, Prem, the naughtiest boy in the group, comes forward to take over and asks the girls to write the issues they face in their communities. The girls put their heads together and whisper fervently. Minutes pass but not one has begun to write. The mentor tries to probe further and asks them to think about why they were not being allowed to come to the session, why one of the girls, despite the maushi accompanying them, was not allowed to come. The whispering continued but still no writing.

As an observer, I had thus far kept out of the action and had silently sat beside the girls. As a woman, I thought perhaps they might feel more comfortable confiding in me and I moved closer to them forming something of an inner circle. Can I help? I ask, and join them. After a moment’s hesitation, Payal (name changed) whispers to me, “Didi, rape hota hai”. I take a piece of paper and ask them, should I write that then? They nod, I write it down, and hand it to Prem who places it on the chart paper. Suddenly, like a dam bursting, each girl starts talking about what she fears in the community and begins to write. I move back into the larger circle and quietly, the girls begin handing the chits to Prem.

“Boys carry swords in the community”, writes one girl. “Boys drink (alcohol) and then tease girls”, writes another. “Boys use abusive language”, writes yet another.

As the chits are read out aloud, the boys start growing restless and begin talking amongst themselves. The mentor intervenes and asks the boys to speak up in the group. Immediately one boy says, “this is not true. These things don’t happen here.” Before the mentor can respond, another boy says, “of course it happens, it happens all the time”. What happens, probes the mentor.

“Boys follow girls, they whistle, they try to touch their odhnis, their hair”, the boys chime in one after another.

“What these girls have experienced is what they have written on their chits, and now it is time for them to select the issue that troubles them the most”, adds the mentor.

The girls pour over the chits again and select two, ultimately narrowing it down to one- boys teasing (read harassing) girls.

Now the mentor asks the girls what they expect the boys to do about this issue in their community. After much thought, Payal looks up, her face grave.

“If they themselves don’t harass girls, it is enough of a beginning.”