Helping them find their voice

Helping them find their voice

Dr Swaroop Rawal, a life skills educator, uses dramatic arts to empower girls, to become catalysts of change, writes Taru Bahl.


Those who have lived through the television era of the 1980s would remember Swaroop Sampat as the young woman who acted in the popular sitcom Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi. Not many probably know that she married actor Paresh Rawal and those who do would think she traded the arc lights for a fulfilling domestic life. It then comes as a surprise to note that the beauty queen-turned-actress now goes by the name of Dr Swaroop Rawal.

Far from being relegated into oblivion, she has, in her inimitable style, created a niche in an area that she not only identifies with, but also completely believes in. Swaroop is a life skills educator, who uses the dramatic arts to empower children, particularly adolescent girls, to speak their mind and gain the confidence to become catalysts of change in society.

“Life skills education imparted with the help of drama allows young people, especially in the rural settings, to communicate and express themselves better. It teaches them how to cope with life as they become informed and compassionate members of their communities,” maintains Swaroop.

 What began as a parent-teacher activity in her children’s school, where she created a drama classroom to conduct an honorary workshop using the concept of Theatre in Education (TIE), turned into a personal revelation. During the course of her session with the students, Swaroop realised there is a discrepancy in the agenda of the education ministry and state of education in the country. In spite of the good intentions of academicians as well as policy makers, students are actually traumatised by what they are being taught in the name of education in modern India.   

After that training session, Swaroop decided to work on this concept further. Learning to impart life skills through the medium of drama in a way that could augment emotional understanding and self awareness, build communication skills and encourage creative thinking in young people became the subject of study and research for her. At the University of Worcester in the UK she did her PhD on the role of drama in enhancing life skills in children and came back absolutely convinced of the fact that rich or poor, urban or rural, boy or girl, everyone could stand to benefit immensely from gaining life skills education. 

Frustrated by the injustice, marginalisation and regressive patriarchal attitudes they experience, youngsters have developed low levels of tolerance, which lead to serious disruptions in society, as evidenced through the increasing incidents of violence, breakdown and depression. In such a scenario, life skills can play a crucial, positive role. In fact, Swaroop believes that social realities can be explained right at the beginning of a child’s academic journey, through experiential learning, discussions and storytelling. 

Fortunately for her, when Swaroop proposed to teach life skills in the government primary school in her home state Gujarat, its then chief minister and now India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi instantly agreed to her plan. At that time, Swaroop’s focus was on dealing with mental health issues among students, a much-neglected and even lesser understood aspect of their academic and social life.

 From there she moved to Save the Children, an NGO, working with them in Gujarat and Maharashtra and then later to UNICEF that roped her in to conceptualise the training curriculum for Jeevan Kaushalya, an adolescent girls’ project in Gujarat. This was a drama-based life skills intervention implemented across 3,450 villages in six districts reaching out to 38,000 young members of the village-level adolescent girls’ network.

Enthusiastic participation by girls saw many stories of change being written in the rural heartland. Girls went in for re-enrolment in school, child marriages were stopped and cases of abuse and harassment were taken up with renewed vigour. Indeed, the programme’s success paved the way for many girls to come together and assume leadership roles in federations at the cluster, block and district levels.

 Today, these empowered adolescent girls’ groups and their leaders can easily represent their issues at higher levels as well as seek redress. Additionally, not only have they begun to exercise their new-found self-belief in their personal lives, but also to contribute to sustaining the existing community-based structures and take on the mandate of protecting child rights. 

But why does she find drama to be a powerful tool to enhance life skills? Asserts Swaroop, “Without confining the discussion to the text book, drama allows young girls to experience real social issues through enactment. Such classroom setting gives you instant feedback, and the transformational change will be very evident.” 

Remarks Sharda Vadaliya, 18, from Bhavnagar, Gujarat, who has gone through Swaroop’s model of learning, “For the first time in our lives we are indulging in the luxury of dreaming. Maybe, some of us will realise these dreams, too.” 

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