Visiting the Communities, Part 1: 3-day Life Education Sessions – Blog Post #4

Continuing to post all my blogs 🙂

June, Sunday 26th

This week has truly been the most amazing and inspiring experience. I never knew that at 20 years of age, I would get to do actual public health, community-based field work. There is so much I want to talk about, so I am going to split it up into three posts. This is what I’ve been up to:

Sunday: We arrived in Purnea and we got to our hotel, where we will be staying for who knows how many weeks (I really want to spend as much time in the field as possible, so I’m hoping for at least 3-4 weeks based on how the trip has been planned). The accommodations were really nice, but I found out there is no Wi-Fi in our room, so it would be a bit tough communicating with anyone over email. I was able to meet with Ravi, one of the Block Project Coordinators (BPC). He was really friendly and very open to helping me, which really made me feel comfortable. He explained  to me that there are two BPCs per district and told me that for the next three days, I would be observing the 3-day training sessions. He was also really kind and arranged a driver for us as well to help us travel to and from the communities every day.

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday – Observing the 3-day Life Education Sessions: Ravi allowed me to rotate between three different batches, with each batch completing the first, second, or third day of training, respectively: the girls’ batch in the village of Shishwa on Monday, the boys’ batch in the village of Shishwa on Tuesday, and the boys’ batch in the village of Kala Balua on Wednesday. Each day, before the training sessions began, the volunteers from CADAM would have to go house to house in the Mahadalit communities to mobilize, or motivate, the adolescents to come to the sessions and receive permission from their parents. Ravi told me that there used to be trafficking in the area. Strangers would go door to door telling the parents to give their daughters to them, as she would be given good clothes, food, among other false promises, and the parents would do so. When Pathfinder began working in the area, there was a great deal of mistrust, but overtime, the community members have become more comfortable with Pathfinder’s presence.

The primary objective of these sessions is to teach unmarried adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19 about SRH and HTSP – everything from the hard biological facts to discussions about decision-making at their age, friendship, drugs, and other aspects of adolescence. The trainers were very welcoming and tried to make the environment very comfortable for all the children, to make sure that they can be open and trusting when it came to discussing these topics. For example, the female trainer made sure that the young girls in her class called her “didi” or sister, rather than madam, because in a family, sisters share things with each other openly. The three days were comprised of the following activities/covered the following topics:

  1. Introduction/Attendance
  2. Expectations – The boys and girls were asked to write down what their expectations were from the training sessions. What was really interesting to see was that the girls often had to draw pictures to express there thoughts, or short phrases at most, while the boys were able to write full sentences and paragraphs. I was able to speak about this with the male trainer who said that even today, there is a greater emphasis for boys to pursue an education, unlike girls.
  3. Pretest – This was used to determine how knowledgeable the girls and boys were about these topics prior to the training sessions. Especially for the girls, it seemed like they were pretty unfamiliar with the material.
  4. Further Explanation of the Training Sessions/Meaning of “Sashakt”
  5. Explanation of “Kishoreavastha” (=puberty/adolescence, from ages 10-19)
  6. Changes in Male/Female Anatomy During Kishoreavastha – I saw this in the girls’ batch. They were asked to divide into two groups and list the changes in males and females, respectively, on big sheets of paper, with the help of the trainer and the lady from CADAM. It was group discussion based.
  7. Making Your Own Decisions, Friendship, Peer Pressure – Two games were played in each batch to explain these concepts, but I saw the demonstration in the girls’ batch. The first was a game involving a ball and a bottle, which was placed next to the trainer’s desk. Three girls were asked to volunteer and while standing in another corner of the room, were either 1) blindfolded and told to hit the bottle while the other girls guided her (she tried but missed) 2) not blindfolded and told to hit the bottle (she tried by missed) or 3) completely free to do what she wanted (e.g. move the bottle closer to hit it). The trainer drew the analogy that when you are “blindfolded” or do things in life based solely on the advice of others, such as getting married early if your parents and your community tell you or pressure you to, then that will not be good for you and your future. If you carve your own path, set personal goals and ambitions for yourself, and follow that path, you will have a better life. You should have these discussions with your parents and explain to them your goals and the importance of not marrying early. The second game involved the girls listing the advantages and disadvantages of using rope. For example, they said that the advantages of using rope include being able to dry clothes, tie wood or livestock, while the disadvantages include being able to trip over the rope or using it to commit suicide. The trainer drew the analogy that like rope, friends can also have good and bad qualities. For example, you can confide in them, but they can also cause you to succumb to peer pressure, causing you to do bad things. You have to be able to chose whether or not to listen to your friend. In the boys’ batch, they discussed how adolescents should work together, in fact, to stop any wrongdoings that occur in their communities or society.
  8. Female and Male Anatomies, Reviewed Using Rubber Models and Anatomy Aprons
  9. Parents’ Expectations and Communities’/Society’s Expectations of Adolescents, Obstacles Faced in Kishoreavastha
  10. How Sex of a Child is Determined – This was one of the major topics covered, especially because even today, the birth of a boy is preferred over the birth of a girl in parts of India. If a girl is born, the woman is blamed, especially by her in-laws and husband. It can even result in domestic violence or the husband can divorce his wife, as was brought up in the training sessions. To clear this misconception, using a game with marbles, the trainer explained that biologically, it is the male that determines the sex of a child, not the female (if someone had to be blamed). Sperm contains both X and Y chromosomes, and therefore, can result in either XX (girl) or XY (boy) once the ovum (which only has X chromosomes) is fertilized. I saw this game in the boys’ batch. A volunteer from Pathfinder, pretending to be a woman, took a bag of marbles around and each boy picked one. Then the trainer, who was the man, went around with a bag of marbles and the boys picked one from the bag – they weren’t allowed to see this marble themselves, nor could they show it to anyone else. They were told to mix the two marbles in their hands. If they had the same color marbles, they had given birth to a girl, otherwise, they had given birth to a boy.
  11. How Babies Are Born/Menstruation in Females
  12. Marriage, the Right Age for Marriage, the Consequences of Early Marriage
  13. Being a Responsible Parent
  14. Family Planning Methods – Temporary and Permanent
  15. HIV/AIDS
  16. Drugs
  17. Gender and Sex
  18. Violence or “Hinsa” vs. “Ahinsa”
  19. Government Schemes for the Mahadalit
  20. Post-test – Although scores are frequently between 20/25 to 25/25, I feel that this is actually a result of students helping one another, based on my observations. Those that closely pay attention, or are more literate, answer the questions well, while the other students repeatedly ask for their help or may copy answers.

The 3-day Life Education Sessions ended with a ceremony during which the adolescents lighted candles, sang, and were awarded certificates of completion. The trainer was very kind and requested that my mom and I hand out the certificates. It was truly a privilege to be able to be part of the ceremony. Overall, it was extremely inspiring to see the trainers teach the adolescents and hear about their work. They’ve actually been living in the communities for the past few months during which these sessions have been running, as part of the Sashakt timeframe. Everyday, I saw them come in with the same joy, energy, and eagerness to teach, even if it was in terribly hot weather conditions and they had to stand all day. I was able to speak both with the volunteer from CADAM and the trainers to better understand their roles/responsibilities, how they got involved with Pathfinder, what challenges they face, and their thoughts on Sashakt. It was especially interesting to learn that even though it was challenging from time to time to teach the students and keep them engaged, it was tougher to mobilize them and keep them motivated enough to come for all three sessions. The parents still didn’t trust Pathfinder at times, and if the training session was being held at a school, sometimes, the teacher from that school wouldn’t give the key (as I saw one day). What I felt was also worrisome was the lack of follow-up after the three days of training (which the trainers also believed, when I asked them what aspects of Sashakt could be improved). Retaining, let alone, learning this much information in three days is difficult. Nonetheless, Pathfinder is doing some great work!

The rest of my week is described in the next post!!