When “a 17-year-old smart, intelligent girl, with glowing ebony skin, lovely dark, long, curly hair, stands up and tells you that because of her dark complexion, she is shunned by her classmates and nobody wants to be her friend, it is nothing short of heartbreaking,” says Jayanthasri Balakrishnan, an eminent educationist and motivational speaker on a wide variety of gender issues.
She has been the lead speaker in the flagship RI District 3212’s girls’ empowerment project titled Yadhumanaval (which in Tamil means ‘she is everything’), the brainchild of DG V R Muthu.
Under this project, along with project chairperson, K Vijayakumari, a member of RC Virudhunagar, she holds talk — or rather ‘listening sessions’ as she’d have you believe — at high schools and colleges for both girls and boys, in predominantly rural areas of RID 3212.
Let’s return to Savitha (name changed), the “beautiful, talented, smart and intelligent 17-year-old girl from Sivakasi,” who stood up during the Q&A part of the session and expressed distress over her self-esteem having hit a dismal low, due to her rejection by schoolmates just because of her dark complexion.
“When in reply I said that you are one of the most charming young persons with such a glowing complexion that I have ever met in my life, and asked her why do you measure yourself vis-à-vis somebody else’s parameters, it took her some time to even understand and digest what I was saying.” Jayanthasri, a former HoD of English Department at the PSG College in Coimbatore, adds that it looked as though this was the first time in her life that somebody was complimenting her about her looks or her complexion. “She couldn’t even recognise it as a compliment… there was a lingering doubt on her face as though I was teasing her. It took her some time to realise what I was saying and then she became very emotional, broke down and started crying.”
The girl was given some water and later composed herself, but the speaker is left musing “whether she accepted my compliment or not.”
This interlude that both Jayanthasri and Vijayakumari, who always accompanies her to high schools and colleges where these sessions are held, had experienced is a mirror to the kind of low esteem so many teenaged girls have in our communities vis-àvis their physical appearance. Says Vijayakumari, a champion of gender rights herself: “Through this district project to empower girls, we are taking Yadhumanaval sessions to the doorsteps of rural girl children of Tamil Nadu, to help them come out of their cocoons with confidence and courage.”
She adds that Jayanthasri was chosen to address these sessions as she is a world-renowned motivational speaker who has the knack of making young people talk and inspires them to reach out for their dreams. “She engages with students to help them come out of their mind block, and as the sessions advance, the students start feeling a connection with her and open up to interact with her to get their long-standing doubts clarified. Surprisingly, they ask her questions they would not ask even their own mothers! We believe that this psychological transformation of the girls is the first step to their freedom, growth and success in life.”
This project, which began in early 2022, even before Muthu became the governor, is sponsored by his own enterprise Idhayam Edible Oils as well as Arun Icecreams, and is held in high schools and colleges in interior South Tamil Nadu.
After conducting over 45 such interactive sessions with girls and boys, both the women realise that rural girls deal with huge problems such as anxiety and depression, an inferiority complex triggered by the comments and abuse that are constantly hurled at them, and are battling with low self esteem. Jayanthasri firmly believes that boys have to be present when gender issues are discussed.
I chat with both the women as they are returning from one of the sessions held in an interior area, and Jayanthasri explains that this session was on menstruation and MHM and “there were so many boys seated in the hall. They were seriously involved in the discussion and listening in rapt attention. There was no hooting or whistling as you normally find when there are videos or visuals of sanitary pads, with water being poured over them and so on. We have to sensitise men about the physical problems of women and how we need consideration and support from them.”
She makes it a point to be very factual and come straight to the point when discussing the issues and problems that young women face in our communities. “In our sessions there is neither romanticising or glamourising of gender issues… we talk about these issues and problems in the most factual tone. We make it clear that women are not begging for pity or sympathy; all they need is understanding and empathy.” This inclusion of male students is very important, she adds, “so that when they grow up and start a family, they will not be half-baked men, but adult and mature human beings, ready to take on responsibility for their families.”
Quizzed on the most common issues/questions raised/asked by girl students from rural communities, Jayanthasri says these are mostly related to how to overcome inferiority complex. “Like most adolescent girls, they tend to be pretty uncertain about their physical appearance, which unfortunately is a very important aspect in their lives, thanks to the pressure put by the beauty care industry. We all know about that. Hence, the example of Savitha and her inability to deal with her dark complexion, even though she had a beautiful glowing skin and colour.”
Another common question raised, she added, is on how to overcome stage fear. Most of these girls are afraid to speak up, even during chat sessions with their own teachers. So in many institutions when the girls open up and are eager to ask so many honest and unconventional questions, many teachers have marvelled at Jayanthasri being able to draw the girls out. “When it comes to questions on overcoming stage fear, I sometimes pretend I did not hear the question and ask the girl to come on stage and ask the question from the stage. When she does it, I tell them: ‘There you are; now you have spoken from the stage so you no longer need to get stage fright!”
Other common questions are about how to deal with catcalls and eve teasing when the girls walk on roads or are in buses. At one place, fortunately, there were some women police personnel in the audience, and they told the girls that “all you have to do is complain to the principal, who will pass on your complaint to us, and we will deal with such offenders.”
One aspect which becomes very clear after such dialogues with the young girls is that what they aspire for is very, very different from what their parents want from them. For example, a couple of girls told her that they were very interested in joining the defence forces but their parents are against this idea. “A Class 9 student asked me this question and wanted to know how she could convince her parents… mind you, they are not complaining about their parents… the word used was ‘convince’ them.” So unlike teenagers from well-to-do, urban areas, who can be defiant, the attitude of these girls is very different,” she says.
Both Vijayakumari and Jayanthasri point out that many girls are grappling with their parents’ desire to get them married, while they are interested in continuing their education and finding a job so that they can be economically independent. “So many of them ask me what they should do. So I tell them… don’t throw tantrums or cry, or use pressure tactics like locking yourself in your room, or not taking your meals. Behave normally, and try to convince them… try to bring them around to your point of view that higher education is the best thing for you. Do it every day and with unfailing regularity and I assure you they will slowly understand that they have to support your dream and will do so,” says Jayanthasri. She reiterates that there should be no complaints, no hunger strike or pressure tactics… “look into their eyes and tell them that you know me since my birth, if you don’t understand and support what I want, who else will do so?”
In our pseudo wisdom we think we know everything about these children but when we stand before them, and find that they ask such profound and mature questions, it can often make you feel totally redundant.
— Jayanthasri Balakrishnan, Resource person
Vijayakumari, herself the retired headmistress of a government-aided school, and past president of her club, adds that they also give the girls examples of many girls who continue their education after marriage with the support of their husbands and this is particularly true of research students. “So we tell them, that in case you have no choice but get married, try to get the support of your husbands and inlaws to continue your education.”
What about questions on love and romance, or sexuality, I ask Jayanthasri. “There are none,” she says firmly. “We have met over 60,000 adolescent girls through 45 meetings and we have not come across any child talking about romance, love, or anything to do with cinema-fed culture. When the talk is about their future, when you focus on something very positive, they themselves ask very serious amd mature questions, which leave their teachers wondering why they never open out like this to them!”
She adds: “Today was our 45th session and I am realising again and again that all that these girls and boys need is a pair of ears and a heart to listen. Once you are willing to listen to them; once you convince them that you are sincere and want to help them… believe, me they can feel your pulse in two minutes…, they open up and pour their hearts out to you. I am so thankful to Rotary for giving me this opportunity. In our pseudo wisdom we think we know everything about these children but when we stand before them, and find that they ask such profound and mature questions, it can often make you feel totally redundant. This has been such a learning, unlearning and relearning experience for me. If I can help even a few girls get out of their low esteem, it would mean a lot.”
Vijayakumari adds that the central objective of the chat sessions with the girls, aged 14 years and above, is to “convince them that rather than a challenge, life is a big opportunity. We strive to make these girls realise that failure is an essential part of life and build the courage to ask, ‘What next?’ ”
DG Muthu, whose brainchild is this project, says he got the idea of empowering girls from the great poet Bharatiyar’s poems. “In most place in India, particularly Tamil Nadu, men are always in the forefront, so I was searching for a project that would put the spotlight on girls, especially in rural areas, where girls and women desperately need our support. And I believe Yadhumanaval was the perfect answer.”
Perhaps, he adds, the fact that he himself has three granddaughters, must have also contributed to the project idea springing in his head. “Seeing its success, we would be very happy to partner with any Rotary club across Tamil Nadu to reach the benefits of this project across the entire state.”