Cricket as a metaphor and more

Discrimination based on gender, caste, creed and ethnicity exists in every society irrespective of the progressive values it upholds. For women and girls, it is always challenging to raise their voice against such inequities because of the socioeconomic and cultural factors controlling their lives. Patriarchy in particular has contributed to making it more difficult for women to demand an equal space in society. However, there are women and girls who, with their persistence and sheer determination, have been able to change the status quo and set shining examples of transformative social and behavioural change. One such example is that of a bunch of girls hailing from Murailapur, a relatively unknown, nondescript village in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Their journey as an example of transformative change and display of courage can bowl over anyone, the pun being totally intended in this case. 

These young girls had a deep love for cricket. But it was not an easy dream to pursue or achieve. The men and boys in their village thought cricket was not meant for girls. And they objected to it. ‘Because of various reasons, we could not get help from male members in the village to play cricket. They constantly kept reminding us that it was not something we were meant to do, and that we could not do it. This did dampen our spirits but we were not ready to give up,’ says one of the girls in the team who is a fast bowler. Add to this the fact that they had to face a lot of gender discrimination, sexist attitudes, and societal constraints. But the girls overcame it all. 

‘We had to overcome a lot of problems to make our dreams come true. It took our parents and elders in the village a considerable amount of time to understand that girls could also play cricket. It was not easy at all,’ recounts another girl, a wicketkeeper. 

Much of the credit for helping the girls stand for their rights goes to Sanjana Chauhan, a resident of the village who is a peer educator under the Adolescent Empowerment Programme run by Jan Vikas Sansthan with Breakthrough’s support. ‘When these girls came up to me and said that they wanted to play cricket but were afraid of taking it up with the village elders, I decided to intervene,’ Sanjana recalls. There was a time when girls of this village were overburdened with domestic chores as their training in domesticity was considered to be essential with parents planning their marriage as soon as they reached adolescence. 

The winds of change started blowing after the Adolescent Empowerment Programme was launched here a few years back. Breakthrough’s gender transformative curriculum – Taaron Ki Toli (TKT) – for students aged 10–14, the Nari Sangh meetings, and other mobilisation activities provided the girls an opportunity to understand their rights and why they needed to be more assertive in the face of injustice.

In Murailapur, Sanjana is a shero who helped these girls fulfil their dream of playing cricket. Breakthrough’s TKT programme turned out to have a moving impact on these girls, preparing them for raising their voice. The audio series with fictional characters like Pinky and Pankaj helped the girls break the gender stereotypes.

A journey of 20 years – building gender equality in India

Breakthrough is a Delhi-based women’s rights organisation working to create a cultural shift by making discrimination and violence against girls and women unacceptable. Founded by Mallika Dutt, Breakthrough was introduced to the public in 2000 when it released ‘Mann ke Manjeere — an Album of Women’s Dreams’. The album and its music videos highlighted women’s rights and aspirations, and became one of India’s top 10 albums for six months. The album generated a great deal of public attention and won numerous awards. Most significantly, it demonstrated that a mass audience could — and would — embrace an album with a social change/human rights message. What began as an experiment to explore the use of popular culture to create a public dialogue about violence against women (VAW) evolved to become the organisation Breakthrough.

Breakthrough challenges individuals to change social attitudes and political and economic structures, and is doing that through its innovations in using cultural tools and popular multimedia platforms. Following the success of Mann ke Manjeere, Breakthrough launched two campaigns — What Kind of Man Are You? (2005) and Is This Justice? (2007), on domestic violence and HIV/AIDS, respectively. These campaigns deepened the organisation’s evolution by bringing complex issues into mainstream popular culture in India and promoted male responsibility and condom use to prevent the spread of HIV, and focused public attention on the stigma and discrimination faced by women living with HIV.

Bell Bajao: A path-breaking campaign addressing domestic violence 

Bell Bajao! (‘Ring the Bell’) is Breakthrough’s most evolved and sustained campaign to date; it has had the greatest impact, scale and the most comprehensive set of partners.

Bell Bajao! is a cultural and media campaign that calls on men and boys to join efforts to end violence against women. Breakthrough announced the campaign in 2008 and in 2011 it went global. 

The campaign’s media component was its most prominent and visible feature – a series of television, radio and print ads that were disseminated widely through a partnership with India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development. Film actor Boman Irani was the campaign’s first male ambassador.

The powerful ads show a man or a boy who hears the screams of a woman being beaten behind the closed door of her home. After a moment of deliberation, the man/boy rings the doorbell of the woman’s home. When the abuser comes to the door, the man/boy asks if he can borrow a cup of milk (in one ad) or use the phone or retrieve a lost cricket ball (in others). From the ads, it is clear that the bell ringer is making the request as a pretext: he heard violence committed against the woman and is putting the abuser on notice that the violence will not be tolerated.

Sohini Bhattacharya, CEO and president, Breakthrough

Bell Bajao went through the roof – it won close to 20 awards. It reached more than 130 million people via television, mass media and video vans which travelled the country. ‘The campaign saw a 49% rise in awareness of the new domestic violence law (Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act) that was passed in 2005, and it raised the demand for services by 15%,’ recalls Sohini Bhattacharya, CEO and president at Breakthrough. 

The transition to Taaron Ki Toli

During the endline/conclusive findings of the Bell Bajao campaign, we realised that women who were married off at a young age were least equipped to combat domestic violence. This made us lower the age of our target group and we started working with adolescents in the 11–18 age group. We started big, working with 18,000 girls and boys across 150 government schools in Haryana, one of the most gender-regressive states in India. Armed with an impact evaluation of this programme by Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-Pal) at MIT, which noted significant changes in behaviour and attitudes not only among girls but also among boys, we are now scaling up our work with adolescents, both in school and out of it to reach 400,000 of them. We have dreams of reaching 1 million by 2023,’ Sohini tells CauseBecause. 

Today, Breakthrough works in five states: Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Bihar, Jharkhand and Delhi. The mission is to reach out to adolescents across the country in an effort to trigger mindset change early on. Currently, the Adolescent Empowerment Programme reaches over 543,000 adolescents in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana, where early marriage and crimes against women are rampant and are at a high rate.

Forging alliances with parents, teachers, health workers, government officials and entire communities, Breakthrough is working to improve the determinants of gender, health and education for both boys and girls. A youth club called Taaron ki Toli has already been launched in hundreds of school campuses in North India to bring gender equity into classrooms at an age when concepts of identity are still being formed. Boys and girls are learning to see life from both sides of the gender divide as they explore personality, personal aspirations, and potential.

The programme’s clarion call, ‘De Taali – banegi baat saath-saath’, asks people to support these young lives by helping them create safe spaces in schools and within their own communities. Under the programme, adolescents receive counselling on gender equity and reproductive rights. Further, they get access to healthcare services irrespective of gender. The aim is to build an ecosystem in which adolescents’ voices are heard.

Making an impact 

India has the largest population of adolescents in the world with 120 million girls and 133 million boys aged 10–19 years, which is about 21% of the world’s adolescent population of 1.2 billion. Adolescents constitute about one-fifth of India’s population and young people aged 10–24 years. This large cohort of adolescents represent a great demographic dividend and to realise this potential to the fullest, young people must be healthy, educated and equipped with knowledge, information, skills and confidence that will enable them to contribute to their communities and the country’s socioeconomic growth. 

Adolescent girls and boys experience multiple layers of vulnerabilities based on sex, age, caste, socioeconomic status and geography. Adolescent girls will face bigger challenges in this transition, as they face multiple deprivations in India. Girls are discriminated against at all stages of the life cycle, the most obvious examples of such discrimination being sex-selective abortions, higher female infant mortality, higher anaemia, lower secondary school completion, and an overall lower investment of household resources for daughters compared to sons. The onset of puberty reduces girls’ freedom and mobility, and increases their unpaid care-work in the household. Girls and boys are also conditioned to aspire for different adulthoods, with boys being expected to become self-sufficient and economically productive while girls are expected to become wives and mothers. As families move out of poverty, this leads to one of the lowest female labour-force participation rates in the world. Where girls and boys express aspirations for jobs, they name gender-traditional familiar roles. Boys aspire to be constables and doctors; girls aspire to be nurses and teachers. Caste, religion and geography multiply these gender deprivations, and in some cases, boys are more likely to drop out of secondary school and be recruited into violent local movements. Harmful norms of masculinity can lead to boys developing destructive and harmful behaviours for themselves and for others, including gender-based violence, recruitment into groups and movements, and a stifling pressure to be sole providers for a large number of dependents. 

Millions of children are lost in transition from childhood to adulthood, from school to work; for some of them, it becomes an accelerated transition from childhood to parenthood. The most critical transition tends to occur between ages 15 and 17 – the dropouts at this stage are always due to economic and gender-based expectations from the family and community. Thus, it is critical to address the needs of young people within a continuum of investments. 

‘Experiences and stories are our tools of choice, as we endeavour to make the subject of gender-based violence mainstream. We speak to our large and diverse audience in a language they can relate to, using mediums they respond to—such as music, new media and popular culture,’ Sohini explains.

Tabu, who lives in the town of Muri (located in the eastern state of Jharkhand), stopped the marriage of her elder sister at the age of 15. Her life was very similar to that of everyone else’s. She cherished many dreams but was unable to express them. Little did she know that one day her luck would change, and she would be the writer of her own fate. She was 15 when she dared to take on the social norm and ensured her elder sister would not be married off at a very young age. She is now supporting the education of her younger siblings through her job.

This journey of change began when Breakthrough team members performed a play about early marriage, titled Chanda Pukare, at Tabu’s school. The play was a part of Breakthrough’s campaign ‘Nation against Early Marriage’. After essaying the role of Chanda, Tabu’s resolve to chase her dreams was strengthened. 

Tabu’s journey of fulfilling her dreams became a source of inspiration for the entire community and society. And now, her younger sister is the first girl from their village to be studying science. As a matter of fact, many girls in the village are stepping out of their houses and pursuing education and employment. According to the survey and evaluation conducted by J-PAL, the Taaron ki Toli programme has met its goal of shaping gender-equitable behaviour among school children. The results revealed that the programme led to an improvement in the career-oriented ambition of girls, perceptions of gender, awareness levels of adolescents, and an overall 16 per cent rise in gender-equitable outlooks.

Evidence of impact 

  • An overall increase of 16% in gender-equitable attitudes has been noted among programme participants across 150 schools in Haryana. 
  • The programme has been successful in boosting the academic aspirations of girls pertaining to their interests in securing college education. Girls who reportedly displayed high aspirations during baseline benefited the most. 
  • The intervention improved mobility for girls – this is linked to the boost in their self-esteem, greater interaction with the opposite sex, and better support from their family members.
  • Girls are more aware and have expressed confidence about vocalising against sexual harassment/perpetrators. 
  • Two years after the conclusion of the programme, boys continue to display gender-equitable attitudes.
  • Boys are increasingly participating in household chores, challenging gendered division of labour at home.
  • An increase in support for girls’ education and women’s participation in paid work has been noted among boys.
  • Adolescents believe there is going to be greater support from their community to challenge gender norms.

In another story of change, Meera wanted to go to college. But at home, she was not even allowed into the living room to meet visitors. When Meera met the Breakthrough trainers as part of Taaron Ki Toli, she shyly offered to help with the set-up. She learned about health, sanitation, and the services the government provided. She started speaking up at the women’s group meetings.

Her Breakthrough moment came when she attended the Partners’ Forum, 2018, as a peer educator. In Delhi! ‘I sat on a train! Till then, I had not even travelled as far as Lucknow,’ she almost exults. Her parents had their doubts, but, as Meera says, ‘they trusted the Breakthrough trainer. For five days, I travelled and stayed with other girls from across India. We shared stories.’ 

Meera’s story has lit a spark among young people in the village. Her older sister would often joke that their lives would be wrapped up in cow-dung cakes. Now she, too, wants more. She has applied for a job with the police. 

Today, Meera, Tabu and all others have become symbols of change who fought their way out of seemingly impossible situations. And Breakthrough continues to play an important part in these much-needed stories of change.