Girls who work as domestic help, girls who want to study but are taken off from schools, are all victims of negligence rampant in the country. A recent film festival in Kolkata focused on the plight of the girl child. Brinda Dasgupta reports
Meet Sunita Routh, a young girl from an economically disadvantaged family who, after the death of her father, took to domestic work to supplement the family income. A student of a prominent city-school, Sunita was compelled to give up studies after the paralysis and subsequent death of her mother, leaving her an orphan. Sunita now works as a domestic help, but in her eyes – eyes that have seen too much trauma and emotional distress for a girl so young – lie dreams of finishing her education.
Sunita is just one of many thousands of girls in this country who are deprived, by circumstances or otherwise, from completing their education. The widening gender gap in India places the female literacy rate at 65.46 percent, far below that of males at 82.14 percent, according to provisional data of the 2011 census. Yet, the gender gap continues to widen, and the plight of many Indian girls, aged 15 years and under, cries out for sensitivity and attention. Girls make up at least 20 percent of the country’s population, but many are deprived of food, healthcare and opportunities available to their male counterparts. Stories of child marriage, dowry death, female infanticide are a dime a dozen.
Against this challenging backdrop works Parichiti, a non governmental organisation (NGO) of Kolkata, striving to give girls equal rights and representation. Recently the NGO in association with CRY (Child Rights and You) organised a film festival titled Meyebela: Amader Chaoa Paoa, (Growing up as girls: what we want, what we get) at the Max Mueller Bhavan, a unique event of its kind in the city. Film has always been considered a powerful medium for generating socially relevant and important message.
Anchita Ghatak, secretary, Parichiti, said: “Most people are attracted to films and we thought the film festival would be an interesting way to reach out to the public. This is an opportunity to focus on different aspects of girlhood, both of childhood and adolescence.”
The two-day programme highlighted the plight of the girl child through personal stories and a panel discussions. Among the films chosen for screening were Satyajit Ray’s Postmaster, Debananda Sengupta’s Maati’r Bhanr, Anusha Nandakumar’s Boxing Ladies, and The Magic Tree, directed by Andrzej Maleszka of Poland, as well as a number of short features produced by the Films Division.
Ray’s Postmaster is based on one of Rabindranath Tagore’s most enduring short stories in which a young postmaster from the city joins a new post-office in a remote village and forms a companionship with a poor girl named Ratan. However, when the village does not suit him and he is set to leave, he finds leaving Ratan behind very hard as the girl wants to accompany him and will not accept the money he offers her. The film is a touching account of friendship, longing and separation, as well as holding a deeper message about the status of women in society.
The short film White Noise deals with the subject of child sexual abuse – an issue which, more often than not, had long been swept under the carpet. In India too, the issue has been highlighted only recently and now led to legislation to protect the child. The film deals with the definition of child sexual abuse and its manifestations, as well as featuring the voice-over of a young girl recounting the horrific experience of being sexually abused by her uncle. Certain shots of a ball bouncing down stairs in slow-motion, and a silhouette of a girl curled up on the floor in a foetal position drives home the trauma of child sexual abuse.
Maati’r Bhanr, a film depicting women in West Bengal, focuses on the issue of dowry, a practice prevalent in many parts of the country even today despite making it punishable by law. Young Sufia Khatoon is tortured by her husband and in-laws who want to extricate more moneys from her family. Cigarette burns, beating with iron rods, pulling out tufts of hair by the tormentors , Sufia suffers the indignity and horror of it all, but survives to tell her story.
The film goes on to discuss the importance of a girl’s education, telling the stories of Namita Das and Namita Biswas, both from impoverished rural backgrounds, who want nothing more than to complete their education and be able to support their families. The recurring motif of a caged parrot in the film symbolises the trapping of the girl-child, or the woman, within patriarchal practices and dogma. Maati’r Bhanr had been awarded the Rajat Kamal award in 1997 for Best Film on Social Issues.
The programme also featured a dance performance by Natun Dal, a group of young marginalised girls who take lessons in dance therapy. A panel discussion followed featuring Shanta Sinha, chairperson, National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), Babar Ali who runs Ananda Shiksha Niketan a school for poor children in Murshidabad district of West Bengal, and Sudeshna Sinha, coordinator of Shikshamitra, which runs a school for marginalised and deprived children in Kolkata.
Sinha pointed out that that enough importance is not paid to the fact that 70 percent of the labour which goes into the manufacture of textiles is a result of the labour of the girl child. “The drop-out rate among girls is alarmingly high, but NCPCR is trying its best to raise the rate.”
Parichiti provides women domestic workers (WDWs) with a platform to voice their needs, thoughts and hopes – and to this end, the organisation has undertaken a project along with CRY to spread awareness on girls’ education with volunteers from the middle and affluent sections of society. Apart from assessing enrolment of girls at the primary, secondary and high school levels, Parichiti also identifies steps to prevent girls from dropping out of school.
On the positive side, these efforts are inspiring domestic- help workers to look beyond the four walls. One such is young Dipali Saha who asserts: “Destiny is what we make with our own efforts and dedication. I will never let life, or its troubles, defeat me.”
Trans World Features (TWF)
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