When She Leads: A Shadhika Interview Series
"Girls and women being in leadership positions are very important for our society because if we want to remove the patriarchal values in our families, education is the biggest weapon to do so."
When She Leads: Nasreen, Sakhi Trust
April 10, 2023Reading Time: 12 minutes
This interview is part of our When She Leads series. Learn more.
Nasreen is a Youth Program Coordinator with our Partner site in Karnataka, Sakhi Trust. Nasreen was interviewed by Communications Officer Vanita Ganesh.
Sakhi Trust is a women-led, grassroots organization providing educational, vocational, health, social and economic support to adolescent girls in order to save them from discrimination and abuse as well as to free the community work of child labor, child marriages, the Devadasi system, sexual abuse, and violence.
Could you introduce yourself to Shadhika supporters?
My name is Nasreen, and I’m known as Nasreen Mithai because my father used to make sweets (mithai). I’ve been working with Sakhi for the past 16 years and I am the Youth Program Coordinator of the Youth Desk. I’ve been working with the youth for 16 years and that gives me a lot of energy and it is my passion.
Could you take us through your journey with Sakhi Trust?
It happened when I was pursuing my graduation, in my second year. As I was studying, I used to sell sugarcane juice on the footpath and I was my family’s bread earner. I was the eldest of my siblings. I met the Sakhi mentors where I used to work, who started a dialogue with me, asking what I was studying and what my aims were. Then I was invited to their office centers, and to the library. From there the support for my higher education and my dreams started. Dreams of not just earning, but of pursuing higher education and of helping the community, especially the marginalized Dalit and Devdasi communities.
I used to think that I was alone in the depths of poverty but when I would see and listen to the situation of other girls and friends from Dalit and Devdasi communities, my way of thinking changed. Because I saw that there were people living in other, more difficult situations. Then I gradually started getting involved in workshops with Sakhi.
“I used to think that I was alone in the depths of poverty but when I would see and listen to the situation of other girls and friends from Dalit and Devdasi communities, my way of thinking changed.”
If you could speak to all the Scholars, what would you like to say? Could you share something that motivates and inspires you to keep going?
Girls and women being in leadership positions are very important for our society because if we want to remove the patriarchal values in our families, education is the biggest weapon to do so. When we uplift the youth via education, we will be able to remove patriarchal values from within our lives and our future. That’s why, use all the opportunities you get from Shadhika to move forward and move together, and take forward the mission of girls’ leadership. All of us play a role here, collectively. That’s what I’d like to say.
What is the one piece of advice you wish you had received as a young girl navigating this world that you now want to share with the new scholars?
I used to really enjoy studying but I did not have a particular dream to pursue something specific in higher education. But I always dreamed to change the cycle of children from laboring families to becoming laborers like their parents. I was studying and earning but still didn’t have the freedom to make my own decisions. It was only later that I could exercise the freedom to marry my partner of choice.
At every stage of life, I have realized the value of making my own decisions. This is what my mentors at Sakhi taught me, and what I would like to pass on to the new scholars.
What are you looking forward to doing this year?
Sakhi works with different sectors – mining-affected regions, Devdasi families, also on agriculture, the Devdasi state-level help desk, natural farming, and that too with marginalized Devdasi family laborers, as well as MNREGA. The focus is on the youth, and all these initiatives are interlinked. Because the youth from marginalized agricultural laborer families, Devdasi families, and others are all interlinked.
Shadhika’s support for the youth and the girls has enabled the first-generation learners of marginalized communities to move ahead in different sectors and motivate the second generation. They are also helping to strengthen the unit federation of girls and working for their rights, be it through panchayat schemes or sensitization workshops. Sensitization is necessary to address the issues in our society, and the second-line leadership is working to address issues of education, leadership, and sensitization collectively.
“Shadhika’s support for the youth and the girls has enabled the first-generation learners of marginalized communities to move ahead in different sectors and motivate the second generation.”
How do you understand ‘girl leadership’? How do you put this into action at Sakhi Trust?
I understand girls’ leadership as the freedom of choice I have in my personal life, from what I wear and what I eat to my choice, of course, I want to study. From there we understand leadership. Or the violence my mother faces and what action I take to stop it, or the violence I face and when I say ‘This cannot continue’: We understand and get our leadership skills from these personal experiences.
Until my mother took the reins of our household, our house didn’t prosper. Before that, it was only my father drinking and getting into debt. When my father fell ill and my mother took charge, only then could we progress. When women earn and plan finances, they do so at a different and more collective level than men. My own life, who I choose as a partner, what I wear, standing up against being told ‘You’re a girl, you can’t say this or wear this’ – all of this is what builds and shapes our idea of leadership.
In our gender workshops, through theater performances and other sessions, this is what we explore: what are choices and what is leadership? In our Yuvadwani Youth Federation, girls get to be in leadership positions each year, as the secretary or the president. There are youth groups at all village levels and even though they are co-ed, we compulsorily mandate girls to stand for leadership posts. At least two girls and one boy are nominated. So, through the youth groups and at the federation level, we’ve made sure girls can lead issue-based campaigns at the village, block, or college levels. From the personal to the community level, there are different ways we enable girls to take leadership positions.
Could you give us an example of ‘girl leadership’ that inspires you or an anecdote/incident from your life and/or time with Sakhi Trust?
Sakhi Trust works with not one, but many NGOs, and we are led by our director M Bhagyalakshmi. Wherever there is girls’ leadership in an organization, we make sure to address labor rights issues faced by women for the upliftment of women laborers. And as I understand, wherever there is girl leadership in an organization, the labor rights, laws, and values change and develop for the better.
Almost all of our desks are compulsorily led by women coordinators. There is male staff, but only women make up desk coordinators of a total of 6 desks. Internally this is how we make girls’ leadership happen.
Simultaneously, we work with the women and children of the Devdasi community. I would like to give an example of a girl participant. Rupa was a mining and child laborer and had 3-4 sisters. She approached Sakhi Trust for support with higher education and she worked while earning for her family. She changed the lives of her whole family. She made sure all her sisters could pursue higher education. Not only that, she recognized the leadership qualities and the artistic dreams in her mother and led her entire community.
When girls are in leadership positions, they not only think of themselves but of the whole community. Rupa’s sisters have now finished their education at a prestigious institution in spite of their extremely poor financial situation, and all the siblings are now working in respectable positions in different sectors. Rupa’s mother now motivates the girls and women in her community to understand why education is important.
Just one girl and her leadership have taken a whole Dalit community forward and motivated so many others. Not just this, but she has stopped many girls from joining the Devdasi system. She could do this as many girls from the community would share their experiences with her. This is an example of how societies can change when they are led by women.
It’s not just about gender, as you’ve pointed out, social locations – caste, financial aspect, religion – are also important to consider. An intersectional approach is very important. Could you share more insights on why this intersectional approach in programs is important?
I am a girl, but the situation for all girls isn’t the same here. Dalit girls face different challenges, and girls from Devdasi families face other, more different challenges: from schools to colleges to certifications. The daughter of a Devdasi mother or someone from the Dalit community has to first cope with the feelings of ‘inferiority’ associated with their background, and then create their own identity. That is a big challenge.
And the girls who come from a rural base do not have access to the same facilities compared to those from the cities. Because whatever the skills, city-based marginalized girls can access resources easily. But those from rural bases have to worry about getting basic nutritious food from time to time, they have to think about traveling to college from their villages or they lose access to resources.
Muslim girls face a whole other set of challenges. Even getting access to higher education is affected by religious aspects. This is why when we talk about girls’ leadership, we have to consider these intersectional aspects and make others understand that only after overcoming these specific challenges can we talk about collectiveness and unity.
Could you talk about the importance and impact of Shadhika’s scholarship program on child rights and gender justice issues? Could you also talk about the extent of the impact of such programs and their outreach?
Sakhi’s main program is higher education support. I could reach where I am, become a part of this big network and work for others only because of Sakhi’s higher education program. Higher education support plays a really big role in that when it comes to Devdasi families and their issues because we can tell the families that we will take charge of their children’s education and that their children do not have to enter the Devdasi system or get married early. Shadhika’s support extended not just to pay the educational fee but also to provide hostel and transport support by providing cycles.
Also, because marginalized communities struggle to overcome technical barriers, Shadhika’s support comes through to help with that. It’s so important that these barriers are overcome and we are able to focus on strengthening our work. I feel that the Shadhika Scholarship can make this happen. Every year we are able to mentor 25 girls and focus on developing girls’ leadership skills.
Through Sakhi’s area of strength, which is the higher education support program, we have been able to support girls’ leadership from the marginalized communities we work with and convince their families that we will stand with them and their girls. Shadhika’s scholarship will help Sakhi’s program sustain long-term and reach out to more girls and foster their leadership skills.
Could you describe Sakhi Trust in one word or one phrase?
Sakhi stands for hope, especially for girls from marginalized communities. Sakhi gives us hope that no matter how difficult it gets or what circumstances we are in, ‘we can do it’. It gives us the space to dream. In all our workshops, facilitations, and mentoring, time and again we repeat this – Sakhi is a friend and your hope. What we might not get from our communities, we can find with Sakhi.
What is something about Sakhi Trust you would like to share? Something you feel people might not (yet) know?
When Sakhi was started by Dr. Bhagyalakshmi, we focused on higher education but had very little money or funds. But Dr. Bhagyalakshmi spent her own money and went from home-to-home selling clothes to fund the scholarships. No one knows how much the organization struggled to move forward and keep the higher education program going. Our founder had to overcome huge struggles to support the girls, especially those from Dalit and marginalized communities. Today she has a lot more support, not that she did not at the beginning.
A word for our supporters, donors, and partner organizations?
The support they give is not for the elite class youth but for those from marginalized communities, who are first-generation students stepping out for education. If any change needs to happen within the community, it can only come through education. Chances of change happening increase significantly when education and efforts to make education accessible are supported. The work Sakhi does in bringing these students into the mainstream and into education is possible only through the support of the donors.
Without complete education support, simply extending partial support through some courses is not enough. Especially if the support is only for the mothers from the (Devdasi) community, it might not extend to the next generation. If we support the education of a young girl, she will take 10 more girls forward with her. This becomes a chain that we want to take forward to a bigger level. I would like to thank the donors for this support and the gains that come with it.
What advice do you have for other women leading from the frontline and those in the development sector?
Many organizations work on education and face different challenges than we do. Similarly, the girls they work with would face issues differently than the girls we work with. We must build a network with each other and learn from each other to strengthen the way forward. These learnings will help us move ahead by light years.Read more