When Aditi Gera was in the 10th grade, she met a girl who worked as a domestic help and was a few years older than her. Her story of being forced to drop out of school and get married to someone twice her age reminded Gera of her grandmother who had to go through similar challenges.
“I was enraged about the way women have been positioned in our society through decades. This experience was a stepping stone in my journey,” says Gera, who went on to set up Empowerette. The 20-year-old from Ujjain who set up the one-to-one mentoring program for underprivileged girls has been recognized this year with the prestigious Diana Award. —. Established in memory of the Princess of Wales, the Diana Award is given to young humanitarians (aged nine to 25 years) working for social causes enabling opportunities. . Gera is also among the 19 Ashoka Changemakers for 2021.
Started in 2019, Empowerette, which consists of a team of seven girls aged 19 to 22, decided to work with a cohort-based model where they would reach out to help 60 girls from rural areas every year. Over the period of 12-18 months, the mentors would hold weekly sessions on soft skills such as leadership development, confidence building, communication, career planning, and emotional well-being.
“For communication, we teach English on a regular basis. It involves learning through storytelling, group interaction, listening, and vocabulary-based group activities,” says Gera.
Recalling a moment where she felt that she had propagated real change, Gera talks about a 13-year-old mentee whom she has always found inspiring.
“When she went back home after the lockdown, our [English communication] sessions shifted to phone calls where she initially used to complain how there's no one around her to interact with in English, unlike the hostel campus,” says Gera. She advised the girl to start teaching her mother by carrying out small conversations during household chores.
“Whatever she learns from me, she would teach her mother just so she can talk to someone through the week in the language. I felt content at that moment knowing how this relationship of ours has created a multiplier impact for them in many ways,” Gera says.
For the young girls, this program helps expand their worldview and builds an understanding of the possibilities that exist for them. “We curate conversations on world problems and brainstorm on how they can take small actions. Our group activities' responsibilities are also divided among mentees,” remarks Gera. She adds that they are currently planning to strengthen the aspirations of the mentees by connecting them to community female peer leaders who share similar interests.
Apart from skills, the mentor-mentee relationship also explores emotional well-being and provides a safe space for girls to be vulnerable and talk about their struggles. The team has also started a digital advocacy program during the COVID-19 lockdown to spread awareness about mental health.
Going beyond the basics
The path to building the program hasn’t been easy for Gera and her team. When they were starting out they approached local shelter homes, NGOs, and campuses for underprivileged girls and got turned away. For many of these organizations, simply providing these girls with basic education felt adequate so they failed to recognize why this kind of mentoring was important.
“Instead of asking for permission to conduct the program right away, we asked the authorities to allow us two sessions in their presence so we can make them understand the problem itself,” says Gera on creating inroads to establish Empowerette.
During the initial sessions, the authorities realized that the girls lacked the self-confidence to even say their names out loud, but also expressed their ambitions of wanting to explore different careers. “We spoke to parents and the authorities with a clear narrative — the need to build a support system for girls, and that's where we observed the mindset shift,” says Gera. She emphasized that for girls who’ve grown up in rural settings in a heavily patriarchal society, it was an upward climb to change their perspectives about themselves.
Gera shared with MAKERS India that being recognized for her efforts and receiving the Diana Award is both an honor and a responsibility. She adds, “It was a beautiful feeling when I got to know that I've received the Diana Award this year. It is a recognition of all the struggles we have faced as a team and the efforts we made to create a change”.
(Edited by Sanhati Banerjee)