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There were Boys, and then there were Girls…
September 22, 2014
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Written by Barkha Sharda

At Kathavana, we had children across age groups throughout the Festival. However, there was something striking with difference in age and gender. The older the boys, the less calm they seemed, some were even boisterous. They would not need the teacher to show them the way to the stall; they would come in at their own time. They wouldn’t need supervision and so the teachers mostly left them alone. They definitely expressed less enthusiasm even though during activity time they were clearly more engaged than when they first came in. Over all, it seemed to me that the boys were allowed more autonomy over their actions whereas the girls clearly were not. The girls were calm and shy. The older ones from the Urdu Medium Government Schools were quietly brought chaperoned closely by the teachers. They were instructed to sit in order, which they did. They were patient in sitting through the story not distracting oneself or others. They would express curiosity and ask questions and engage with hesitation. They were as interested in the activity and as excited as the boys but they were definitely more starved for learning/knowledge. They listened to the story, learnt the song, and participated in the activity and then the final display of their individual pieces of work at the end of the sessions with increasing interest and fascination. They were mature in the way they conducted themselves in a public space like the Festival yet their awe and surprise during the sessions were most childlike. They seemed so much calmer despite an urge to grasp all they could in that limited engagement with all of us.

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It is possible to say that this is a generalization. Then again I will never know. In my two days, I met many children from different backgrounds, different schools, different age groups, both boys and girls, but coming back I had a feeling of déjà vu. At our MOP sessions over the last three years, from the boys and girls who joined together now only the girls remain. The boys often drop out, they play football, learn to bike, loiter through public spaces etc. none of which is even permissible to the teenage girl in the community. On a good day the older girls don’t get called back home or don’t need to cook for someone, fill water, wash dishes when they can read and some of them grow to become voracious readers.

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Over the two days it really delighted me to witness responses of children who were looking to make meaning of any opportunity for learning accessible to them. After the sessions though the boys moved out, the girls would take their time, give their activities their best shot and have the most satisfying smiles as they left the stalls. If we go back I feel strongly they will remember us. Even if we never see them again I know they will continue trying against odds because this Festival has strengthened their desire to read. Each time they are stereotyped and forced into societal acceptance they will rise and when they feel they are falling the experiences of having been in such spaces will bring hope to them.

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