The campaign in Tamil Nadu was focused in Madurai and Cuddalore districts. The issues taken up during the six months included gender-biased sex selection and early marriage.

The campaign involved activities and engagement with frontline health workers, youth, community women and adolescent girls from villages, panchayat representatives and government officials.

The interaction with the frontline health workers helped in highlighting the challenges they face as part of their work when it came to dealing with women and girls related issues.

Gender-biased sex selection is one of the major problems in Madurai. Girls are looked at as ‘strings of expenses’ in the district. From her puberty function to her dowry, a girl is economically expensive according to the community in the villages. They prefer boys because they are considered ‘cheaper’ in the long run and will in fact earn and take care of the parents, while a girl will only bring in expenses.

Training sessions on legal issues and gender laws were held in various places for community women and adolescent girls because there was a lack of legal knowledge in women, even in the elected women representative. Discussions around child marriage also took place and people were informed of the mental as well as physical consequences the children could face. The need for joint ownership of assets likes houses and agricultural land and quality education was stressed upon. Dowry related violence was also a central concern for the women and girls. It was also revealed that there was very little awareness about the laws regarding the protection of women among the villagers.

The youth was also an important target group in the campaign. Several workshops were held in colleges. The objective of these workshops was to enable the youth to look at various aspects of their day to day life from a gender lens. The students also shared their experiences of discrimination which included a difference in the quality of education, medical treatment and other basic amenities given to the male and female child; discrimination in property settlement; women’s lack of control on her income.

Interactions with elected women representatives revealed that they faced many challenges. They shared instances of gender discrimination in their tenure of being elected women representatives. They shared the various challenges faced by them in the panchayats, which included women’s vulnerability to caste discrimination, lack of agricultural work which forces people to relocate and rise in child marriages.

To view photographs from the campaign, click here.

The following case studies are a testimony to the impact of the campaign.

Dr Anthony Selvaraj, professor at the History Department in Melur (govt.) College, had an interesting observation of ‘gender equality’ in the villages around his college in Melur, Madurai district. ‘Mobility has increased, you see more women outside their homes. Their dress is modern (salwar kameez) and so are the gadgets.’ But all this, he argues, it is only cosmetic. ‘Like letting a cow graze with a longer rope.’

The students from his college are mostly from rural backgrounds, many of them are children of agricultural labourers, explains Dr. Selvaraj. ‘About 55 per cent of the college students are girls and 45 per cent are boys.’ But it is not as if the college preferentially admits girls, he laughs. ‘They outperform boys in the 12th board exams. And since the admission process is merit-based, we have more girls!’ He has a good understanding, therefore, of the student community and their gender issues, much of which largely reflect the mindset of the region.

Broadly, the problems he highlights are those around child (underage) marriage, declining sex ratios, dowry harassments, domestic violence and honour killings. To tackle these, his recommendations are very clear – men need sensitization campaigns as much or more than women need awareness campaigns.

A small farmer from a women’s group in Kodimangalam Panchayat, Madurai district, K. Sivagami never used to say her husband’s name. ‘It was considered disrespectful,’ she giggles and then says it for me. ‘His name is Kumarasamy Raja’. Her mother and mother-in-law are seated in the circle of chairs around the room; they both smile.

They explain that being close to Usilampatti – infamous for its history of female infanticide – meant they too faced the rampant discrimination in a region that greatly preferred males. ‘They killed new born girls by choking them with paddy grains or feeding them kallipaal [extract of cactus plant].’ But things have changed remarkably, Sivagami says. ‘Earlier, the focus was only about marrying off daughters, the wedding expenses… now, with the government’s support for girls – at the time of birth all the way up to their education – there is a clear change in the attitude.’

She explains the various learnings from the Ekta meetings over the years and particularly the recent ones – as part of the Girls Count gender equality campaign – which focused on legal rights. ‘After the meetings, women have demanded their rightful share of property. In fact, brothers have given a share of ancestral property to their sister. This happened because they know we’re aware of our rights.’

As a successful farmer, Sivagami finds the traditional patronizing attitudes towards women difficult to accept. She farms three acres of land, planting five varieties of banana and paddy. She’s knowledgeable and savvy, and quickly lists best practices in agriculture, including input costs per acre, the profits, the cows she keeps and the profits from each animal.

The financial empowerment, combined with a sound knowledge of her legal rights, has changed her viewpoint. And not just in agricultural business. ‘When we were young, father used to eat first at home. Now, all of us sit around and eat together.’

There used to be such a strong boy preference in the villages around Saraswathi’s, that a third child – if it wasn’t a boy – was killed. ‘Now there is awareness – NGOs, television, government – have changed things.’ An elected woman representative (2011-15), S. Saraswathi is a soft spoken, thirty seven year old woman from Thanakankulam Panchayat, Madurai district. She is a very articulate woman. Sitting in the Achampattu panchayat library, she says how far girls have come with education. ‘I’m only a 10th pass from a government school. But now, girls do one or two degrees, and have several job options to choose from.’ They find work as teachers and in offices. Some - like her sister-in-law’s daughter, a B.E. graduate – got a very well paid job. ‘She earns Rs.35,000 a month. She is the inspiration for my daughter!’

The changes are not fully without drawbacks. One has seen an increase in the dowry if the highly qualified bride seeks a better educated groom. ‘Other than that, there are no caste issues. Once there was a murder (honour killing). But in general, if the boy is from a SC background and the girl from MBC, her family will be sure to oppose, but there’s nothing violent. Just a crushed ego…’

Saraswathi believes that education can sort out those problems among the younger lot. For older women, like herself, she thinks it is awareness campaigns that make a difference. ‘Before EKTA came and spoke to us, we did not know what to do, what we could do. Now, we know we have to approach the BDO for civic problems.’

Civic change, though, takes longer, she explains. Open defecation remains common. ‘When I try telling people the importance of building a toilet, they counter it with ‘how can you keep that dirty thing inside your house!’ They want to be ‘free’ and do it in the open.’ She grins as she says it, the irony making her laugh. But, she still managed to build 250 toilets in her village. ‘I spoke to them about dignity and hygiene.’

The greater challenge, Saraswathi opines, is getting women to take an interest in women’s issues. And to get them to speak and stand up for it. ‘Women are scared to get involved, but once they do, they are very good.’ She herself has come a long way, she points out. ‘The Panchayat leader used to say women should not speak. We [she and other EWRs] made him change his mind!’ Saraswathi then stood upto the BDO and saved a school’s compound wall from being razed down. She went to Delhi to meet Rahul Gandhi, to ask for 50% representation for women in panchayat elections. ‘Women know what is good for their families. They can also improve the village, if they are part of the decision making.’

Being a woman representative also made a difference to her personal life. ‘I have five siblings. But my father called me his lion-cub. I looked after my father in his old age. When he died, my brothers refused me my share of property. But now, they respect me, and want to give it to me…’

Saraswathi credits gender training workshops over the years for a lot of her success. ‘They showed me the way, especially how to surmount legal issues. Think of it like a lamp with oil and a wick. Someone has to light it, isn’t it? They empowered me, and I inspire others. If only EWRs are paid some money every month [they are paid a paltry Rs.50 for transport], how much more I can do! I will work full time only for the village!’

Sadasivam, a seventy one year old Panchayat President from 2011-16, is vocal and unapologetic about his chauvinism. ‘Women were only in the house,’ he says, explaining the state of affairs in the area until a few years ago. He uses the word ‘housewife’ dismissively. And adds, ‘forget politics, they didn’t do anything other than agriculture.’ In a region that’s dependent on agriculture for its income, Sadasivam (who grows banana and paddy in his own land) is probably right on the number of women who made some little money from it. But it was hardly empowering.

‘Now, they are coming into society,’ Sadasivam says. ‘They are educated, they go to work, and they are independent.’ He rambles and says it is because of this that they get sexually assaulted. He blames Facebook. And Bimla Chandrasekar, of Ekta, then has to gently point out the unfairness of his allegations.

He then, surprisingly, begins praising women. ‘When you see parents coming to drop kids off at school, you’ll notice that 95% are women. I tease them – why don’t you take the bag and go to school yourself! They are so competitive you know, they want the best for their children.’ This independence has also benefitted them at home. ‘There is a lot less domestic violence,’ he notes. And it is because women have become stronger, not because the men are any more considerate.

“I like women in the panchayat” he says. (The elected women representatives from his panchayat beg to differ. S. Saraswathi and B. Sivagami openly said that Sadasivam did not encourage women to speak up and that they had to fight with him to be heard.) But Sadasivam goes on. He says he prefers women to men, as the latter tend to be disruptive. ‘Women co-operate. They also think and do things for other women. Men just bring unnecessary problems to the table.’

But he also points out how women’s representation is misused. ‘There was one woman called Dhanalakshmi. Her husband was the real ‘power’. She was the elected dummy. The man got caught out when the collector came.’ He thinks this sort of tokenism can be prevented if women are better educated. ‘There should be minimum qualifications for women.’ Why he does not include men in that list is anybody’s guess. Bimla Chandrasekar later mentioned that he has come a long way in accepting women in the panchayat. It took several meetings with him, and gentle persuasion and questioning his long-held patriarchal thoughts to bring about change. It is clear from the brief interaction that he is typical of the region – macho in outlook – and is an example of what women need to surmount even if they get a leg up from reservation.

As a professor in a college with 4000 students (out of which 1200 are girls), thirty two year old S. Abhirami has some interesting insights into the psyche of Madurai district’s young men. ‘Boys are simply not aware of gender discrimination,’ she begins. ‘If they have no sisters, they grow up unaware how privileged they are, to them it becomes normal.’ In fact, they see themselves as less privileged, she says, biting back laughter. ‘They think all the material wealth is given to girls. There are so many laws for girls, nothing for boys. They see their dress as dowdy, whereas that of girls as ‘special and costly’. They begin to believe much more in invested in girls than in them.’

Their (mis)understanding is alarming, says Abhirami. ‘They just say there is nothing left for the boys. When I ask them how girls are denied proper nutrition, they counter it with ‘so what? Wealth is given to girls!’ They say one boy cannot walk in front of ten girls – he will get ragged, and so on. It is not surprising, is it, that they believe any gender sensitization is required only for girls and women?’

And so in a district with very strong traditional gender-defined roles, Abhirami (who is pursuing her PhD in ‘gender socialization in the family and its impact on the society) thinks boys need awareness programmes urgently and regularly if they are to become agents of change. ‘There is so little they learn as part of their formal education. So we sent one boy and one girl from our college as interns toEkta – as part of Girls Count’s gender equality programme. The girl felt strengthened, the boy was awakened.’ That outcome, she says, is as she expected it. ‘For boys in this society, there is a ‘push factor’. He constantly hears, “you can” “you will” and so on. For girls, there is a ‘pull factor’ at work. For them, there is a mental conflict between what they want to be and the qualities of imbibed patriarchy.’

In the gender equality campaign workshops, she saw the biases up close. ‘One boy asked what is the recourse for men who are victims of violence at the hands of women. We then explained to him how violence against women was institutionalized.’

Gender sensitization programmes, she recommends, should be made available to all the stakeholders – for students, and the staff and management. ‘One time intervention provokes thought, but only continuous knowledge transfer and sharing will bring about change.’

Her name is up on the building - Thirumathi T. Pasupathi Thangaraj – in big, yellow letters. But, she points out, sitting on the floor, her legs stretched out before her, not long ago the whole area was just a rubbish dump. ‘There were cows and goats over here. I had to fight to get this space cleaned. The men resented it. They asked what right I had to spruce it up,’ she laughs. The men had overlooked the fact that she was their panchayat president. They only saw her as a woman. And it was unthinkable that she could take decisions on clearing common land. They would rather have dirt and dung; but not a community centre for other women.

Pasupathi fought hard. The men slowly came around. ‘First, Canara Bank sponsored a children’s play area here. Then, in 2015, the government built this centre.’ It is a handsome building, sturdy and colourful. The women from Pullaneri village – young and old – are seated around in a circle. They have all benefitted from Pasupathi’s able leadership. And she, in turn, from the gender sensitization and legal rights training programmes by Ekta.

‘This area is infamous for its girl-child killing,’ she says. In chilling affirmation, Amma Thaayi, a retired Anganwadi worker from the same village narrates her personal experience: she was asked to murder her second girl child. She refused, despite the intense pressure from her mother-in-law and the women of the village. ‘It was so common. Until a son is born, all the girls were killed,’ Pasupathi explains. The talks and training they received helped changed mindsets. They’ve now taken the fight further – from cradle (where the girls are now safe) to the classrooms (where there still are pressures).

‘There was a very popular scheme in these parts called the ‘Sumangalithittam’ (roughly: wedding scheme). Teenage girls were sent off to cotton factories to work long hours in hazardous conditions. They developed lung and uterine problems, but parents kept sending their daughters because when they turned eighteen or nineteen, they came back with fifty thousand to a lakh. It was used up for their wedding.’ When the village was made aware of the discriminatory and debilitating nature of the scheme, they – led by Pasupathi - began to shun it.

With a sound knowledge of legal rights, she also stopped eleven underage marriages. ‘The most recent one was a 17-year-old girl. She wanted to study. Her parents got her married. We supported her to walk away from it. She threw the thaali (mangalsutra) and went on to study!’

Knowing well the importance of timely legal help, she teaches everyone the child helpline (1098). It took her a long time to figure out things initially. After she became the president – and until she went for a Panchayat Level Federation (PLF) meeting - she never knew the number of schemes available for women. She then went about getting all the benefits for her villagers. ‘Gas stoves, toilets, bank accounts, goats, vermin composting… I got them many opportunities.’

‘Wedding, bangle ceremony, her baby’s head tonsuring, ear piercing, if her child is a girl, then her puberty function…all of it costs so much money. Then, there are festivals and functions in her house. Such a small silver lamp [she raises her land a few inches off the floor] costs twenty thousand rupees,’ explains Thilakam, a PLF member and trainer with the Pullaneri Panchayat. Seated in the village’s newly built community centre, Thilakam points out why this region in Madurai district had such a strong male preference. ‘A girl-child in the family is only seen as a string of expenses.’ So they start compromising and cutting corners, where they can. ‘Boys go to English medium schools, girls to government run schools. They reason that girls are going to get all the jewellery anyway, so why spend on their education too?’

The area around Pullaneri village – in Chellampatti block - is not impoverished. It is a region of grand weddings, lavish feasts and rich trousseaus. The former Panchayat President T. Pasupathi said that gifts of 100 ‘soveriegns’ (1 soveriegn = 8 grams) weren’t unusual. The women around the room added that a fully grown goat, silver articles, a two-wheeler, steel bureaus and wooden cots – basically, everything a new couple would need to furnish a new household was also often provided. It placed an enormous financial pressure on the bride’s family. It was the single most important reason why girl children were dreaded. And done away…

‘I think female infanticide became rampant when the price of gold increased,’ says Thilakam. She pins that to the 80’s. Even until the late 90’s, a first child – if it was a girl – was seen as a problem. ‘But she was allowed to live. The second was definitely killed.’ Men refused to ‘support’ the girls. They wanted a heir, a son. They encouraged the killing, which, everybody agreed, was done by midwives and mothers and mother-in-laws themselves.

The women of Pullaneri gained control over their lives only when they got some little financial freedom. That happened when banks began offering loans to women, instead of their menfolk. They felt even more empowered when they received legal training. ‘Over the years, Ekta taught us how to access courts, who to speak to, which lawyer to approach.’ They use the information carefully. ‘Sometimes, we personally handle things. But for underage marriages, we call the Child Helpline – 1098. If we brought in the police directly, the villagers will kill us!’

Thilakam is matter of fact about the violence they have faced. And survived. ‘We used to get beaten on the road…’ But when they stepped out of their houses and got work done, attitudes changed. ‘I juggle so many job. I’m a mother, grand-mother and go out as trainer too. I get toilets built. Today, there is a meeting with a contractor. He is happy and willing to build something like this,’ she pats the handsome building we are seated in. ‘But he sees no great profit and refuses to build toilets. So we decided we’d do it ourselves… how hard can it be? We’ll supervise the masons…’

From childhood, she says, she’s only faced challenges. ‘They had so many children those days. When you were an older girl child, it was your job to look after all the others.’ That trained and toughened her for a life where every small step is a big struggle. She gives me an example - as a PLF member, she attended a meeting where collectors from six districts had gathered. They were discussing about hiring men as sanitary workers. ‘I interrupted and said the job should go to women. We push the household cart,’ I told them. ‘What is a rubbish cart for us?’ Everybody present gasped, she recalls with a smile. And then they agreed it was a terrific idea. A small step, yes, but a decisive one. And in a region that killed its girls before they could suckle once, it was an important one towards gender equality.

Ammathaayi refused to kill her daughter. ‘My second child was also a girl. My mother-in-law, the women of the village - they all told me to feed her poison from the cactus plant or choke her with paddy grains. I simply refused.’ Her words don’t seem to shock the women around her. They’ve seen worse. In a region that was long infamous for female infanticide, everyone knows of a family, a story, where a newborn was denied the right to life. All because she was a girl. ‘But, continues Ammathaayi, ‘now girl children are not killed at birth.’ It’s because, she points out, and female fetuses are conveniently aborted in the womb. And this despite the law (Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994) that prohibits scan centers from divulging the sex of the fetus. There are greedy technicians, corrupt doctors. It is always women and girls who stand to lose.

It has historically been a difficult region for women, especially someone who did not abide by its patriarchal rules. Ammathaayi was one of them. She was quietly different, quietly defiant. To begin with, she had a very unusual childhood. Her father died when she was very young and she was sent packing to a residential convent school. ‘Back then, no girl ever studied. But I wrote my SSLC in 1969,’ she smiles. In 1975, she got married and came to Pullaneri village. She was seen as something exotic – here was an educated young woman (who loved algebra!) who wore a blouse, draped her saree in the city style and wore her hair in a single braid. ‘I was called ‘sadaikaari’ [the woman with the plait],’ she laughs.

Next, she got a job. ‘I was appointed as the balwadi [anganwadi] worker. I fulfilled all their eligibility criteria: I was 25 years old, married, with kids, had passed SSLC and was from the same village. My first salary was 175 rupees!’ Over the next thirty years, she worked in three different centers, and is now retired with a pension of Rs.1500.

Her work brought her into close contact with women and children. ‘Initially, I had to teach and cook. There was a lot of interest in the centers as it was so helpful for women agricultural labourers. Children went to school when they were five. They came to balwadis until then.’ Her job included caring for pregnant women, administering vitamin A drops for children, iron supplements for adolescent girls, and more recently, sanitary products for girls. ‘It is when they come to the centre that girls confide in us. Now the team is larger. If they say they are not allowed to study, we try and help them. We intervene.’

In the 80’s, she began work on the government’s sterilization drive. ‘We had a quota, of at least two women a month.’ But it was hard convincing people, she recalls. One of the first to go for it was Pasupathi, the former Panchayat president. ‘If I did not meet the quota, I used to beg the nurses, to try and push their cases on my quota…’ She smiles when she says this, and laughs when she talks of how long she pushed off her own sterilization. ‘I was so scared I would die! But I bravely convinced everybody that it would all be fine. I had a new child on my hip as the years went by [she had three daughters and a son]. Finally, I got it done…’

Even if she was – and still is – critical of the sterilization schemes, she has nothing but the highest praise for the anganwadis. ‘I took my children with me to work. The meals were such a boon for poor children. Forty to fifty came everyday. Now with many going to private schools – and starting off early, when they are 3-years-old – the numbers have sharply declined.’

But despite being educated, she was unable to give the same opportunity to her daughters. ‘My husband was a coolie worker. I could not school them. They were married off at 15, had children of their own at 16. My grand-daughter is now studying to be an engineer…’

Anthony Raj had never heard of gender equality, until an Ekta/ Girls Count programme introduced him to the concept. ‘I did not know what that meant at all!’ It was an internship programme for the last six months (two students – a boy and a girl from his college – were selected for the programme that lasted from June till December 2016) that opened his eyes to the issues that he never knew existed. ‘We watched documentaries and understood a lot of things like discrimination. I thought girls and boys were equal,’ he says earnestly. ‘I believed that patriarchy existed only because girls believed it did.’

The divide between boys and girls in the region clearly runs very deep. ‘Even going with a girl, as I did for the internship, is seen as odd. Boys hangout only with other boys.’ It wasn’t all that different in his hometown. Anthony had come to Madurai district in 2014. Back home – Surandai town, in Tirunelveli district – where he studied until his 12th standard, he was the youngest child of the family. Anthony had a reasonably comfortable childhood. ‘My two elder sisters and I were similarly educated until 10th, but after that, only I was allowed to go study further and stay in a hostel. My sisters had to do a diploma there only. They were not sent out for college.’

His own college has dramatically different rules for boys and girls, he admits. His internship partner, for instance, is unable to get permission to come out from her hostel to meet us. ‘There was a rape case sometime back,’ explains the soft-spoken Anthony. ‘A lower caste girl was raped by an upper caste boy. When she complained, he asked her how much [money] she wanted to keep quiet.’ The college quickly put in tighter regulations, insisting on girls staying indoors after 4pm. Anthony tries to justify the college’s rules. ‘It was for their [girls’] safety.’

When asked if he would share his family’s property with his sisters, he hesitates and then answers. ‘It’s a difficult question,’ he says, looking genuinely confused. He is aware of and understands the legal rights of women, but he takes a moral stance and speaks from his father’s experience. ‘My father had two sisters. One was given jewellery, the other a piece of land as there wasn’t money at the time of her wedding to buy her gold. But even later, she refused to return the land. My father bore that loss.’ ‘His thoughts echo that of many men in the region’ says his teacher S. Abhirami, Assistant Professor in the Department of Rural Development Science. She explained how they all believed that with the girls getting all the movable property, all that’s left for the boys is usually a heaving debt and land that might be heavily pledged to pay for a lavish wedding.

Both teacher and student believe more sessions and regular programmes are important to change mindsets. In his own way though, Anthony tries to be a change maker. He tries to speak to his friends about gender equality. ‘But they are very reluctant to agree with the concept,’ he rues.

‘There are no jobs here,’ says Vasanthi. ‘Is there some way for us to make a living?’ Vasanthi – and the other women who have gathered in Ekta’s Killai centre – are desperate for work. The district is not just one of the poorest in the state; it is routinely hit by natural calamities, one after the other. Tsunami, cyclones, floods, droughts – name it and the people have seen in it in the last two decades. Agriculture takes a big hit both during floods and during the drought. ‘Either way, there will no harvesting work, no straw to dry. We are not sent out for other kinds of work, in offices or so. They say men will jeer at us.’ To make things worse, there is rampant addiction among the men folk. ‘My husband – when he finds coolie work – makes about 500 a day. Out of that, he keeps at least a 100 for liquor.’ With no sugar and rice in the ration shops, how, she asks, is she to feed her children and run a house with the little, unreliable income?

When Vasanthi speaks, the other women nod quietly. Their stories are not very different. R. Anjamma, 49, a ward councilor from Thillaividangan panchayat blames the collapse of agriculture for their problems. ‘There is no water for the fields. For homes, we pay two and a half rupees for a single pot.’ The previous generation, they point out, did not fare so badly. ‘There was some work in brick kilns. Now even that is gone.’ Plus, as the Irulars [members of a scheduled tribe] from Kalaignar Nagar [a nearby settlement] pointed out, expenses have now shot up. All houses have televisions and everybody has mobiles. Someone has to pay the electricity and phone bills! While lifestyle changes are welcomed, they rue the lack of opportunities to make a better living.

‘We have LPG gas connections at home,’ says Vasanthi. She had applied and got one, fed up of getting pricked and scratched gathering firewood. But there are no toilets. ‘The government has a scheme where we need to pay and they will reimburse us. But I don’t think it is possible to hire a mason for 600 rupees a day, and buy 1000 bricks at 6 rupees each, and finish it in the allotted money…’

When asked about gender equality and legal rights of women, Vasanthi says she is aware of it all. But her pressing need is livelihood. Property rights do not cross her mind, she says, her poverty does not allow her to imagine it. ‘We need some kind of training to do some work. We were taught by another NGO to make ear-rings. They said it will sell very well in Chennai. But how do we market it?’ She prefers to learn things she can locally sell, for which she sees a readymade market. ‘Washing powder, candles – I know we can sell them in the local shops.’

With a daughter in 10th standard, she urgently needs cash. She turns to moneylenders. ‘When she needs money for books, what do I do? I borrow. Then, I pay it back immediately, so that the next time I want something, they will give it to me.’ She hopes, after she is educated, that her daughter will leave the district. ‘There is nothing to do here. She must go somewhere else…’

Kavitha was cheated by her husband and his family. They said he had a job, there was family property… there was nothing.’ She was so miffed, she came back to her mother’s house. But more trouble awaited her there: one of her two brothers (she calls both of them wastrels) chased her out. But she stood firm, and claimed her share of her parents’ property. ‘I built a house on it. I knew my legal rights, what I was entitled to,’ she says.

Born into a family of traditional fishermen, Kavitha has seen and faced patriarchy all her life. ‘In KillaiPanchayat, there are 10 villages that are fully dependant on fishing, and five that thrive on agriculture.’ When she was in school, in her village – Kuzhaiyar – girls were never educated. She was an exception – a 10th pass. Kavitha was also the first from her fishing community to go out to work in an office. ‘I worked at Ekta centre for five years. It is here that I learnt all about legal rights.’ It just wasn’t the done thing for women. They were encouraged to look for opportunities within their fold. Like her mother, who buys and resells fish. ‘She goes to the fish market, where the fishermen bring their catch straight from the sea. She buys for about 500 rupees every day, and retails it, door to door. She makes a small profit, about 150 a day.’

It is that money she uses to run her house. Her salary goes towards the bigger expenses, including educating her two sons. ‘The boys don’t want to take up fishing, they want to study. My mother lives with us. My husband is a B.Sc graduate, but he is jobless. He even wants to chase my mother out…’Kavitha is now back working at Ekta. Only, her husband constantly suspects her of having affairs; he finds her empowerment threatening.

There are so many hurdles here for women, explains Kavitha. She cites the need for a good education very high priority. Right after that, she talks of the great need for employment. ‘There are so few opportunities here, especially for women. They can resell fish or dry crabs and shrimps and sell them. It does not matter if you have the qualification, what will you do here?’ When these two are taken care of, she says women need to attend legal literacy camps. In a largely impoverished area, property wrangles are not very common. But because there are many fishing communities – where there a higher percentage of widows (the men die in the sea, during storms; several perished during the Tsunami) – they need to be taught their rights. ‘There is also a serious drinking problem among the communities… but I don’t think infanticide or foeticide are issues here. The fisherfolk bring up all their children.’

Kalainila can be an ambassador for gender equality. She speaks fluently, passionately and argues more effectively for gender justice than many adults. It is hard to believe she is only 14, studying in class 9 in a government school in Cuddalore, one of the poorer districts of Tamil Nadu.

Much of her learning comes from Ekta-Girls Count’s training on gender equality. ‘We had monthly meetings. We were taught about child marriage, how early pregnancy makes a woman weak. We were taught good touch and bad touch, and to approach a trusted adult in case someone touched us inappropriately.’ And this, she adds, is even if the abusive adult bribes the child and warns them to keep it as a secret. ‘We are also taught the child helpline,’ she adds proudly. ‘We have to call 1098.’

‘My mother is a housewife,’ says Kalainila. Physically challenged, her mother is unable to go out to work, but takes care of the house. ‘Father is a construction worker. Out of the 500 or so he makes a day, he keeps a 100 or 200 for himself.’ It is with the rest that the mother has to feed four children and two adults and keep some aside for their books and clothes and sundry expenses.

Although largely supportive of her daughters, Kalainila and Janani’s mother openly favours her son. ‘When she gives us ten rupees to go out and spend, he gets twenty. He has so much freedom,’ says Janani. ‘It is so irritating. He can go to my aunt’s house, I’m not allowed. I don’t like him fighting with other boys, but he won’t listen! He challenges me if I advice him: ‘why are you studying and wasting time? You will get married and go!’’ The most surprising fact was how old – or rather, how young – he was: 12 years old. When the sisters planted flowering shrubs, and watered them, he laughed and said, ‘yes, yes, water it, all this is for my wife.’

His attitude, while shocking, is very much in line with other boys his age from the region. They are raised with preferential treatment. They are fed first, better, go to more expensive schools, and are given much greater freedoms. ‘He resents what little our mother does for us,’ says Janani. ‘And my mother too supports him, never us.’

For the sisters, an idea of a gender just world was an alien concept, which they learnt from the training programmes. They are keen to take this learning to their friends. ‘I think the programme should also be for boys,’ Janani says. ‘Shouldn’t they also work for an equal world?’

Coalition Partners