Flo Carson

Flo Carson - Social Anthropologist, studying International Development at Sciences Po, Paris. I am slightly obsessed by gender, politics, media, human rights and global health. I've worked in Asia, Africa and Europe and keen to explore more of the world we live in. Take a look at my Twitter & Tumblr for my most recent posts. tly

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Our First Field Trip

After a couple of weeks of interning, we were finally given the opportunity to go out 'to the field'. In this case, to a couple of Apne Aap's centres in two villages just over an hour out of Delhi.

It was refreshing to see open space, lush green fields and goats after having got used to the thick, white polluted air, mass of people, and consistent urban chaos of Delhi. The comparatively calm mages were so familiar to my previous visit to India, comforted me enormously and made me feel as though we were stepping into more known territory. We reached the first Apne Aap Centre and were greeted by 6 or 7 members of staff, the field workers, who warmly bowed to us in their greetings. Initially, there was a  predictable stalemate of shyness and curiosity between us and them; plenty of staring, silent smiling and whispering behind hands. But after introducing ourselves and asking a few questions about their experiences, the atmosphere warmed and we were all reminded of our shared aims.

None of our beneficaries were actually at the centre since, for some unknown reason, it had been decided that we would visit when they were at school. However, meeting with the field workers, community mobilizers and those working on the ground with the girls was enormously enlightening in quite an unpredictable way. These Apne Aap centres, are where the important work takes place. Beyond the arbitrary bureaucracy, printing and spontaneous, unscheduled, or severely delayed meetings of the office. This is, I guess, where the magic happens and ultimately what I was seeking when I first applied to be an Apne Aap Intern last year. Apne Aap have these kind of centres in the outskirts of Delhi, West Bengal and Bihar, they are the sites whereby the organisation is able to give direct support to girls who are at risk of being trafficked as a result of their tribal backgrounds or poor economic situation. In addition, they provide assistant for women survivors of trafficking and prostitution. Apne Aap insist that they are not a rescue organisation, but instead work towards improving alternatives and creating a world of increased choice and freedom for women.

What surprised me most about my first visit to the centres was the extent to which Apne Aap's wider aims translate very differently on the ground. Their adamant mission against human trafficking and promoting alternative livelihoods as viable solutions was not readily apparent here. There are apparently reasons for this; recently there was a community backlash against the girls of the centre voicing their experiences and opinions on controversial topics on camera. The men in the community argued that these depictions painted them uniformly and universally as pimps and traffickers. Accordingly, the men in the village increased the control they already maintained over these girls and refused to allow them to visit the centre or leave the house at all. Eventually, girls have been allowed to return to the centre, but there is a patent rhetoric of insecurity and walking on egg shells. So much so that it seems like crucial issues go completely unmentioned between the field workers and the at-risk girls. They avoid any mention of prostitution and trafficking since they do not want the girls to return home and vocalise what they've heard. The only visible sign that this is centre is supported by a charity that aims to prevent trafficking is on a single, faded, hand drawn Apne Aap banner.

After asking some questions to the field workers, it seems like the main achievements of the centre is the ability to bring these girls together in a safe space, where they can relax, laugh and enjoy each other's company. Whilst in many cases, the girls are taught skills in tailoring and IT, this ultimately transpires as quite useless financially and simply an excuse to bring them together on a regular basis. How useful are computer lessons when there are no computers in the village apart from the four desktops found at the centre? How much money can a woman earn if there are twenty other trained tailors in the village?  It leaves the market saturated in sewing, and no truly viable economic alternatives for these women to earn as opposed to the prostitution and trafficking which may be expected of them.

The fifteen or so women that we met in the second centre, sat cross legged in a small room, each with an old Singer style sewing machine in front of them. Meeting them, forced me to realise there is no way that I can condemn these classes as completely ineffectual; not only would that be morally wrong, but it would be narrow minded and perhaps a little ethnocentric of me. The classes and centres provide a space for the women to come together, laugh, chat and relax outside of the patriarchal households, villages and worlds they inhabit. Normally, the movements of young women are closely monitored by their fathers, husbands or gossiping neighbours and if a woman is thought to be too independent, leaving the house too often, she is heavily criticised. Nevertheless, if they are able to attend classes at a known centre, this legitimises their activity and movements outside of the house. Typically, women (read as: wives) in villages are expected to behave in a similar way to the way in which children were in old England: seen but not heard. The resounding giggles, colour and optimism in this space evidently provides these girls with a chance to develop their confidence, personalities and friendships. This is a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

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