Libraries Without Boundaries: Of Gender, Rights, Consent, Sexuality, and Community Engagement

21st August 2019
Our members talk about Gender, Consent, Sexuality and Rights at a community event
Our members talk about Gender, Consent, Sexuality, and Rights at a community event

Nine of them squatted in a circle. Our library members aged 9 – 13. Each one of them had a message to deliver. They stood up in turns, faced the imaginary audience and spoke about gender, rights, consent, and sexual health. It was Anju’s turn. “Parivar ek tarah ke nahi, kai tarah ke hote hai. Kissi kissi main do papa ya do mummy hoti hai. Hume unka sweekar karna chahiye,” were her words.

I had been discreetly following the rehearsals of their nukkad natak from behind the door. Now I felt the barrier had melted, boundaries shattered. I wanted to be a part of this group. I needed them as my friends. I needed them as my friends when I was their age. When I could only wonder, be confused, even feel shame about my sexuality. I needed them to tell me that it would be okay.

It’s 2019. The draconian Article 377 might have gone, but LGBTQ community in the country is a long way away from equal rights; marriage, adoption. So who was Anju’s message for? Would it be heard in the Indian context? Did it have to be delivered to members of the community in Sikanderpur? And how would they react? That message was just one of the many strong statements that were to be made during the community event. Were we ready for the reactions?

Community members at Know Your Body, Know Your Rights event
Community members at Know Your Body, Know Your Rights event

When I started with TCLP in 2017 I was aware of the Read Alouds, the Arts and Crafts workshops, the Headstart program. But what has followed has been a Masterclass, not only on different issues, but the bigger role of libraries too. Experts from various fields have talked to our members on topics ranging from ethics of Journalism to Women’s rights. The YP Foundation has made developing leadership amongst the youth their expertise. And they brought their 'Know Your Body, Know Your Rights' programme to TCLP.

Their trainers Sabita, Medha, Aman, Prakriti and Manasa with Pallavi Agrawal coordinator of the program held a series of workshops at the library. A group of members was taken through sessions that involved discussions, games and other activities to drive home the message. “The goal of the programme is to raise public awareness and reduce stigma, discrimination young people face with issues of gender, sexuality, rights and health,” said Sabita.

Every Sunday afternoon for 10 weeks, workshop participants would wait eagerly to know more about body changes, attraction, and gender. YPF trainers noted initial reluctance in them sharing their experiences, which was expected. But within a couple of sessions they started engaging with the facilitators and relating things with their surroundings. “The highlight was when each of the members could talk about menstruation and importance of consent in today’s time,” Sabita says proudly.

Workshop participants with YPF trainers delivering a message about gender violence
Workshop participants with YPF trainers delivering a message about gender violence

Through the course of the programme they would go on to challenge the trainers during their discussions. They would break down their own inhibitions and misconceptions about topics that they were told were taboo. They would take their learnings to the peer group and discuss. Nitu says, “Hume kaha jaata hai ke ladkiyan yeh nahi kar sakti, aise kapde nahi pehen sakti. Toh hume logo se baat karke unhe samjhana chahiye; yeh hamara shareer hai, aur hamara adhikar hai.”

Each of the members had their own takeaways from the sessions. They were now to deliver them at the community center in Sikanderpur. To their friends, family, and members of the community. Library volunteers along with Student Council members and YPF trainers drummed in the support, quite literally, through community walks. ‘Aao aao, natak dekho natak dekho’, was the call. But the “dialogue with the community” as Sabita put it, had just begun.

On the day of the event, the walls of the community center showcased posters on diversity, gender violence, stereotypes and other related topics. Our members performed their nukkad natak with gusto in front of over 300 peers and members from the community. As they recited “choona chana nahi chalega,” with Kumkum, 11, leading the way, they reminded their audience that shoshan kai prakar ke hote hai, kabhi sharirik toh kabhi manaseek.

Nukkad Natak performed by TCLP Sikanderpur members made a strong statement
Nukkad Natak performed by TCLP Sikanderpur members made a strong statement

Another important message that came out and resonated with the audience was ‘Har rishte ki buniyaad sehmati hota hai’. It’s something one of the elders in the audience picked up on and applauded. “Yeh baatein hume zaroor apne yuva peedhi ko samjhani chahiye”, he said. By the end of the event, the entire gathering was unanimous in their support as they sang along, “Hum bolenge, moonh kholenge tabhi zamaana badlega”.

After, YPF Trainers held a debrief session with the members. They discussed the takeaways from the experience for the members and ways in which their message could be taken forward. The trainers had an important takeaway of their own, “We often think that kids in this age group are too young to discuss bodily changes, sexuality, and rights. This group pushed us in our discussions, which helped us provide feedback on the curriculum,” said a beaming Sabita.

It’s been a month since the event was held. We still hear it being discussed amongst our members. The other day, Sonia, 11, handed in a book report on a story of a girl, who pushes boundaries, breaks the norms. As we discussed the report Sonia cited an example from the nukkad natak she had recently witnessed. Whether the message stayed with every community member at the event, I couldn’t tell you. But I know that day, we broke some ground.

And that’s what libraries can do, not just within its walls but way beyond, into the communities they serve.

Shashank Samant is a content editor, journalist, and a volunteer with The Community Library Project since 2017.
The Community Library Project
Ramditti J R Narang Deepalaya Learning Center
B-65, Panchsheel Vihar,
Delhi, India
Illustrations provided by Priya Kurien.
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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