What does it mean to “empower” a girl? A more daunting question – how do we empower many girls? How do we make this empowerment sustainable, self-replicating? This has been a question we ask ourselves continually at VOICE 4 Girls, and one that we’re making a commitment to answer.
VOICE 4 Girls was launched in 2011 as a summer camp for adolescent girls, aimed at giving them the life skills, critical knowledge, and spoken English they needed to advocate for themselves and their futures. Our curriculum includes topics like menstruation and puberty, education and career choices, and understanding and dealing with sexual violence, all taught in fun, engaging activities. VOICE believes, à la the Girl Effect, that these girls will then be positioned to create greater change in their communities – by staying in school, marrying later, having children later, being employed, and giving their children better opportunities that can help them break out of cyclical poverty.
We’ve reached thousands of girls, and have seen wonderful results, especially in the confidence levels of our campers. Girls who are too shy to speak when they entered camp soon whip up their hands to offer answers in class or dance Bollywood solos in the final performance. Girls who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, speak English aloud jump in front of my camera, ready to talk no matter how broken their sentences.
With their newfound confidence and ability to speak up for themselves, these girls have become potential change agents in their own lives – but can they also be change makers in the lives of other girls?
We choose to answer that with a resounding “absolutely.” Soon after we launched, VOICE began our Sakhi Program, which takes campers from Andhra Pradesh Residential Schools and trains them to teach our curriculum to other girls in their schools. Each camper (or Sakhi, meaning “girl friend” in Hindi) teaches about 10 girls in her school, meaning VOICE reaches 10 times the number of girls we touch directly in our camps.
But we see our Sakhi program as more than just increasing our reach. It’s not just the students benefitting – our Sakhis are able to develop leadership, critical thinking, and problem solving skills as they teach. The knowledge they learn in camp is more deeply ingrained as they relearn it, explain it. And the participating students then become equipped to teach their friends, families and communities. And on, and on, and on – the succession is potentially endless.
In an age where traditional models of aid and development are being questioned, the international community is beginning to examine and reevaluate who it is that should be giving aid. Our Sakhi program serves as one of many potential models for this shift in focus, where the receivers of aid are also the givers. While our camps will always be a major part of our programming in order to give girls the information they primarily need, the uniqueness – and future – of VOICE lies in our Sakhi program. Through our Sakhis, we hope to create cycles of change and a revolution of girl champions that inspire each other to steadily change the future of women in India.