Hope. On difficult days, I struggle with that word. To make sense of it when I listen to a 15-year old talk about how he thinks of killing himself so that the sound of the power loom he works at night and day will stop reverberating inside him. When Radha says she has nothing to live for anymore, because at 17, she’s already married, has a child, and been abandoned by her husband and family. When Owais, 13, draws himself up to his full height of four and a half feet and declares he’s a man because men work, and he also goes to work.
It’s moments like this that force me to look at whether change is possible, to question what it even looks like. How do you make impossible choices in desperate circumstances? Keep your head above the water?
The first time I met Shabana was a few months ago at a group meeting of adolescent girls in one of the bastis in which we work. She’s 14. The girls were discussing where they feel unsafe, of the walk to the community toilet, the leering and everyday harassment. They were making plans on how to stay safe.
Shabana sat slightly away from the rest, shoulders hunched, not making eye contact. In the two hours I was there, she didn’t utter a word, poised as if to flee by the door. Her silence was telling. Of wanting to be included but not quite fitting in, watching from the periphery.
It was a silence I recognised. Moving from a small island town to Delhi as an 8-year old, it was a silence I’d adopted. A defence against being the outsider, of wanting acceptance, to be seen and heard.
My colleague who works with the girls said that Shabana was new to the group. Till then, her world had been restricted to her house and the gali she lived in. She’d dropped out of school, caring for four younger siblings while her parents went to work.
In her meetings with my colleague, Shabana spoke of wanting to go back to school, but was terrified of her father, of his rages and beatings when he’d come home drunk. To keep the peace, she acquiesced and assumed the role of chief caregiver.
The next time I met Shabana was a month ago. She had started going to school. Surprised, I asked how she had orchestrated it. She responded: ‘I’m not doing anything wrong, so I stopped being afraid. Now I go to afternoon school and look after my siblings in the morning.’ It was a battle fought with quiet determination. ‘I knew that didi was there. In case I needed help, she’d talk to Abbu for me,’ she said.
Then yesterday, I got a call from my colleague. Shabana had heard her friend Asha’s engagement was being arranged and decided she wouldn’t stand for it. She marshalled nine friends to make a case with the girls’ mother, enlisted adult support and together the group persuaded Asha’s mother to cancel the engagement.
The turn of events was incongruous, the image at odds with the girl I had met a few months ago. What had changed? How was this transformation possible?
When I spoke to her later that day, it was a different Shabana from the girl whose voice was once barely above a whisper. This girl had steel in her spine, in her conviction that there was nothing else to do but stop the engagement. ‘When I first heard, I went home and thought about whether I should do anything. I was frightened. But then I felt that just like I was looking out for her, someone else would be there for me,’ she says.
Something has changed. Not in a dramatic bells-and-whistles way, but viscerally. Perhaps it was being able to go to school again, having friends, adults to talk to who’d speak for her – people she could count on to watch her back and prop her up. Maybe it was gaining courage from hearing her own voice, determinedly fighting to be counted by negotiating with her family.
For me, the magic is bearing witness to these everyday, imperceptible changes. To see that it’s the many small somethings that make children safer.
Of being able to hope.
The author, Deepika Khatri, is the Strategy and Advocacy Coordinator at Aangan, an Indian non-profit that works with children in dangerous situations like child trafficking, child marriage, hazardous work, and violence and abuse, to prevent and protect them from harm.