These girls talk politics and how!

 Small villages in Tamil Nadu get young girls to speak about the promises they want their political leaders to fulfill, and even motivate them to join local panchayat bodies, finds-out Hema Vijay.

The village of Thazhaiyattam in Gudiyattam panchayat in Tamil Nadu’s parched district of Vellore is likely to be overlooked as yet another nondescript rural hamlet that dots the state. But an intriguing political initiative is taking shape here, giving a new spin to the term ‘grassroots politics’.

A group of young women have come together to spread the message of democracy and rights in Thazhaiyattam and its neighbouring villages. They get young people to speak about the promises they want their political leaders to fulfill, initiate lively discussions on the various social and governance problems they are up against, and even motivate them to come forward and join local panchayat bodies.

Undertaking such interactive public service hasn’t been easy for these girls, considering that their conservative, patriarchal families expect them to remain unseen and unheard. But they have been drawing inspiration from Dinesh Gajendran, a young social activist, who hails from Gudiyattam and heads the Audacious Dreams Foundation (ADF), that is engaging the youth for sustainable development.

Vocational political training

It was through a vocational training centre ADF runs in Thazhaiyattam that these rural girls first began to get a hang of the concept of participatory democracy. They have learnt how the panchayat council functions, the processes involved in policy making at the village level, and what the UN Millennium Development Goals are about. Today, all this knowledge is enabling them to contribute towards the creation of a national crowd sourced youth manifesto, as part of the ‘My Space My unManifesto’ campaign that is underway in 15 states across India. As a partner in the movement, 60 ADF girl volunteers, in the age group of 17 and 25 years, are spearheading the campaign in their villages, collecting ‘promises’ – on paper and on camera – about what the youth would like to see in the manifestos prepared by the political parties in the run-up to the 2014 general elections.

Via public service

Suganya, 19, is the face of the movement in Agarancheri village. Currently doing her internship to become a nurse, she is never back before 9 pm. Yet, on weekends, this gritty young woman is out on door-to-door rounds collecting promises for the youth manifesto, in addition to conducting out-of-classroom sessions with local school children and youth on public interest issues. Though Suganya does have her political ambitions, she’s not quite sure how she will break into this sector and hopes her “public service” will make a difference.

Taking charge headlong

G Vijitha, 22, who lives in Gudiyattam, however, has definite plans to become a ward member of her panchayat before she turns 25. Her life has had its share of struggles. After she completed high school she was forced to sit at home for four years because financial problems prevented her from pursuing higher education. Not one to take things lying down, she worked at the local Primary Health Centre and managed to save enough money to enrol in the Audacious Dream’s Nursing Institute in 2012. In her second year of nursing now, she is also an active member of the Village Education Council and the local School Management Committee.

Sparking the movement

Of course, for these women discussing politics with random strangers or even neighbours is challenging. “As I broach the subject of governance and voting and talk about the unManifesto campaign, many people raise their eyebrows at first. Yet, once they understand the idea behind it, most get enthused and become very responsive,” elaborates Vijitha.

Youth on field

ADF’s Dinesh Gajendran, who has been encouraging these girls in the campaign, is convinced that as more and more youngsters realise the need to enter politics, the times will change. The 2014 elections might turn out to be a watershed moment in the history of Indian democracy. Nearly 50 per cent of the population is below 25 years of age and obviously, this unprecedented number of young voters will play a crucial role in the outcome. Ignoring their voices is no longer an option.

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