Make My Space- Ab Nahi Toh Kab?

By Mahima Dev

Hoshiyaar banoongi, sabse main ladoongi,

Arey mujhe kya rokegi yeh duniya,

Kal logo ke bandhan ko sehme main chali thi,

Aaj bandhan ko tode main aage chaloongi,

Duniya tere samaaj ka hoon ek hissa main,

Apna adhikaar lekar rahoongi!”

A pleasant poem with a strong message, recited by Vacha girls during their street plays and performances.

Every now and then the brave girls at Vacha shed light on important social issues and bring public awareness through street plays. But brazenness is not always welcome, especially in the Bastis they call home.

When the girls and Vacha mentors first started presenting these street plays in Bastis and public areas, they were greeted with dismay. Most girls’ own families and neighbors discouraged them. There was an unnerving incident wherein a brother pulled his elder sister by the arm, screamed, “How can you do all this” and dragged her home. After much pleading and persistence on the part of the girls, their parents reluctantly permitted them to perform but with the caveat that they would do so in Bastis far away from home, “Do whatever you want but we will not be party to this nonsense!”

The girls felt dejected but jumped at the opportunity of being able to enlighten the people of other Bastis. And they did. Overtime, people started speaking and praising the girls’ enjoyable and hard-hitting street plays. The girls were motivated to work harder. Eventually, there came a time when the Basti leaders, who had once shunned the girls’ plays, invited them to perform at events and occasions. They have really come a long way and we are very proud of our girls!

One of the most impactful plays by the Vacha girls is called Make My Space- Ab Nahi Toh Kab. It deals with a topic which is usually taken for granted: access to public places. Due to the obsolete social outlook towards girls freely accessing public places, amplified by the lack of security thereof, an important aspect of a girl’s developmental process gets obstructed. The girls have put it in a rather clear manner – “What is a public place? Is it a religious place…? But people of all religions are present here today. So, it cannot be. Is it an educational place? But people from all walks of life- uneducated and scholarly- are present here today. So, a public place is all these things and much much more. Public places such as libraries, sports grounds, hospitals etc. are the most essential contributors to our growth. It’s the valuable social setting where we get to interact freely with people of diverse religions, cultures, languages, ages and sexes. Yet this right is sometimes taken away from us.”

In a survey of 1000 Mumbai girls/women conducted by Vacha in 2015, it was discovered that-

1) 60% of those surveyed were scared to use public toilets.

2) 40% found libraries unsafe.

3) 40% found roads and sports grounds unsafe after sunset.

These figures are appalling.

We tried unearthing the causes of these findings and found case-specific reasons.

Public Toilets-

Public toilets, a basic necessity, are not accessible to women mainly due to the fact that places around such bathrooms have transformed into frequent meeting spots for drunkards and substance-abusers. The ladies bathrooms neither have lights nor proper doors. In some cases, no water or dustbins are available in the toilets. Women are charged more than men at such toilets because apparently women make more of a mess. All these factors mean that parents often times do not allow their young girls to use public toilets. Parents believe public toilets contribute to more sickness than open defecation.

Sports Grounds (Maidans) and Public Libraries-

These areas are often desolate and have therefore turned into hubs of eve-teasing and sexual harassment. Instances of serious sexual crimes perpetrated in desolate areas or abandoned locations, are abundant. These areas are mostly frequented by men, with little or no women in sight. This makes not just the girl but her parents very uncomfortable as well. In addition to this, girls coming out of home at night is a taboo and their parents have to hear taunts by neighbours. For these reasons, girls are not allowed to freely access parks, maidans and public libraries.

These issues need the attention of the government and local authorities, but above all awareness of the general public is imperative. We must realise that these are problems of our own and need our initiative and cooperation to be solved. If around 40% girls feel unsafe in ‘public places’ then can we truly call them free and independent. Can we call ourselves and our nation free?

Vacha has initiated the first step to help all girls reclaim public places. We have been actively involved in renovating toilets in certain wards, by putting in petitions and following up with local authorities. In addition to this, gender sensitization classes have been held with young and adolescent boys for an all-rounded understanding of girls’ issues. Awareness sessions in bastis in the form of Sports Days in public maidans on Republic Day and Independence Day have been a huge success.  The Learning Community of which Vacha is a coordinator, holds Seminars by the name ‘Reclaim the Public Place- “Ab Nahi Toh Kab”’. The next seminar will be held on the 10th and 11th of February 2017. You are welcome to attend, find details here- http://bit.ly/2jOR55C

We hope you will join us in this bold endeavour.