Sammi and one of the Indian girls sharing warm words and a hug after HKIS girls shared their feminine hygiene lesson plan.
For the last five years I have been taking groups of HKIS students to Ambur, Tamil Nadu in South India to facilitate week-long workshops on empowerment. It has been an immensely satisfying experience, and among the highlights of my three-decade long teaching career.
One of the Indian students explaining how poor local children get drawn into child labor. Approximately 40% of students at Concordia-Pernambut have been involved in some form of child labor.
And yet the trip this year was different. Yes, the relationships were strong; yes, the student facilitation of the teaching for empowerment curriculum was of impressively high quality; yes, there were tears among all of the students on the last day when we said goodbye. Once again, I was so proud of what we brought to these students. This, I am convinced, is what real service at an international school can look like.
But year six ended up being one of the most eye-opening experiences of my career, not only for my students but for me as well.
It all started last year when our student leader, Weilyn (in pictures above and below), realized that some of her female students couldn’t come to our workshop for a couple of days because they were having their periods. That prompted her to consider adding the issue of feminine hygiene into this year’s curriculum. So, we brought reusable pads with us to provide the female students with better protection rather than relying on poor quality government-provided supplies.
The night before our class on this topic we talked in a circle about what to teach. My interim co-leader, Reena, an Indian woman who attended school in India during her adolescent years, broached the larger topic of what we should teach along with the hygiene issues. We need to talk, she suggested, about how girls can protect themselves from male advances. She then told a frightening story of her own escape from a family friend’s predations by abruptly cutting vegetables with a kitchen knife, a thinly disguised ploy of self-defense. She concluded by saying, “Every Indian woman in my generation has disturbing stories to tell – or those of mothers, aunties, sisters who felt threatened or violated.” She turned to the 9 girls in our group, “Would anyone like to share any stories?” Silence…waiting…silence…nothing. “Well, good,” she concluded, “I’m very pleased to see your generation is free from the weights my generation of women had to endure.” End of conversation, or so we thought.
Unbeknownst to Reena and myself, the girls got together after the meeting first to plan what to say regarding not only feminine hygiene, but issues regarding the “no-go zone,” consent, and other issues related to sex education. But this quickly changed into a sharing session that no one had foreseen. In the course of a long, tissue-laden conversation that went deep into the night, one girl after another opened up, sharing their stories of fear and violation, admitting events that they had never previously told anyone. Eight of the nine girls had their own stories to share.
In fact, one of our girls, we later recalled, was accosted by an official even as she received her visa at immigration in Chennai. “Are you coming to India to find a boyfriend?” he asked. Holding her passport, he said to his male colleague, “Can you believe she doesn’t have a boyfriend?”
Having never experienced anything like this myself or in my family’s travels, I asked this young woman about this incident. “Oh, it’s no big deal. It’s happened many times before.” Really? I had no idea. “We’ve travel to a lot of extreme places. I’m used to it.” Really?
The next morning the Indian girls sat in rapt attention as the HKIS girls shared the many issues that they had prepared. About half-way through, one of our girls ran out in obvious distress, followed closely by a friend to comfort her. Sharing, hugs and tears followed, and then she walked with determination right back in…to tell her story of repeated sexual abuse that she suffering through as a young girl. Every HKIS girl was fighting back tears, and the Indian girls were spell-bound in their dismay and solidarity.
Later that evening we returned to the circle we had so innocently left 24 hours before. This time there was no happy silence. The tone was sober, leaden, distraught. The girls took turns sharing stories and registering raw emotions. We moved around the circle: “Heart-broken,” “it broke me” (2 girls), “hopeless,” “disempowered.” The grief, despair, and shock was palpable.
At the end of two hours, I spoke for the group, “I had believed until today that HKIS girls were among the most liberated and protected female students in Asia. Our school empowers girls to run with their ideas – it’s one of the things we do well. And now I have to wonder if this strong, talented, and confident contingent of young women in our school are really hiding unmentionable violations that they had buried unacknowledged. If this is true for 8 of 9 of us, multiply that by the 400 girls on our campus.”
We ended the session with a breathing exercise to help us calm down, which uncharacteristically disintegrated into silly laughter. Has pranayama ever before broken down into a laughing club of India? Certainly not to such beneficial effect.
And how about the guys? For the three boys and myself, we were stunned. We had never heard the raw stories of women who had been violated. We had never felt the emotional disillusionment of stolen innocence….of, for instance, a seven-year old girl tackled and “man-handled” by someone she did not know. We grieved with them, recognizing our pathetic ignorance. Never again, we seemed to vow silently, would we hear women’s complaints of male aggression without remembering the pain and despair of “heart-broken,” “it broke me,” and “hopeless.”
So, I am left chagrined that I have been so shocked by an issue that so many have experienced but I really hadn’t understood. I feel compelled to act. I have to tell what I have heard and seen, to ask that the school do more to give voice to the things that have been silenced.
After six years of trying to empower girls and boys in India, we came across an unacknowledged area of disempowerment within our own school community. We have to do something different, we have to tell our stories, we have to listen with our hearts. This is the empowerment that we need, not just in India or even in Hong Kong, but – now I must assume – everywhere.