Together for a Cause

When five college going girls set out to change the society they live in, almost everybody suspected their intention and capacity. But after a series of successful daredevil interventions in crimes against women, perceptions changed. Bilal Handoo reports how Aafreen Youth Group is heralding the perceptible change in people around them

Aafreen-Youth-Group-1It was Sunday and silence had gripped Batpora area on the outskirts of Srinagar. Hardly anyone was visible on the picturesque landscape around. After a while, locals started moving out of their homes. Everyone was following the same track. They stepped inside the home of a young girl—who along with four other girls, was about to sensitise them about issues like dowry and caste system.

Yasmina, 20, started social awareness in her locality soon after qualifying her Class 12. Three years down the road, she has managed to rope in another 15 girls in her group called Aafreen Youth Group.

At the outset, she wasn’t alone in her endeavour. Her younger sister and friend were also motivated for the same cause. The trio got trigger for doing the social service when a non-government organisation IGSSS camped in their locality for assessment of social problems. The NGO imparted training to the girls who soon became active in their own locality. Later they kick-started the campaign, which soon entered into 300 odd households of Batpora.

It was altogether a different experience for locals in Batpora to watch three college girls in action. These girls had started talking about issues which weren’t taboo; yet were shrugged off by the people. Soon, the reactions poured in. There were many naysayers than supporters of the cause. Some questioned their frequent movement outside. Others expressed displeasure. And, only a few termed it: a good initiative.

But the girls had made up their minds not to get distracted by public perceptions. They were young. Their minds were ignited. And, they had a fire in their bellies to set the things in order. “Passion is infectious,” asserted Yasmeena, wearing head-scarf and beaming confidence from her yellow-tinged eyes. “When all this talking was done by the people around us, our group strength rose to five.”

The other two members were also from Batpora. They were also fresh from their Class 12 exams. But the five teenage girls weren’t ordinary girls around. They were equipped with trainings like consumers affairs, filing of Right to Information (RTI), community service, basic infrastructure scheme, environmental issues, social evils—their management and consequences, and plenty of other issues.

To begin with, the girls started sensitising people about environmental concerns. They focussed on the principle: catch them young. Sparing some time from their college routine, they visited schools—where they sensitised students about the impact of being reckless towards their surroundings. The results were encouraging, but the larger public perception was still against them. Some people were still raising questions: what are these girls upto?

But then, the girls knew that it was not going to be a cakewalk for them.

Fresh from their success on environmental awareness, they were then preparing themselves to raise awareness about social evils—like dowry. Well before bringing up the issue openly to public notice, the girls did some serious homework. And soon they had their eureka moment!

Aafreen-Youth-GroupThey called up community members under one roof and presented a skit in front of them. The skit managed to touch the raw nerve in audience. The girls performed from the core of their heart. As a result, the mood in the community was no longer against the initiative taken by the five daughters of Batpora. As the skit ended, almost everyone was vowing that they would boycott dowry, forever.

But their campaign didn’t conclude with that performance only. After the skit, the confidence in girls had skyrocketed. They were now focussing on each household in Batpora. And soon, they were spreading awareness inside living rooms of the locals. “Do you know, what is the best thing about our campaign,” asked Rafiya, 18, another member of the group. “Our initiative infuses a confidence in poverty-ridden families that they don’t need to give dowry for the marriage of their daughters.”

A perceptible change in people towards these girls also motivated their parents to stand up for their support. As support surged, the girls too expanded their canvas of social cause. The next thing they were laying their hands at was caste system. Being sensitive, they had witnessed how some marriages ended on sour note due to prevailing notions about caste.

Apart from door-to-door campaigning, the girls started awareness on caste-system by organising awareness camp in their own homes. They were letting people know: caste is an outcome of occupation and not a sign of status. A palpable change was there to see among the attitudes of the people. And then, they were spreading awareness about the importance of a higher education for girls and consequences of their early marriages.

But many in Batpora area were still thinking that these girls can’t take their campaign beyond lip-service! The bunch of five was quite aware of the public mood. They took it on themselves to address the same mindset.

The girls soon stunned locals when their RTI became the basis for blacktopping potholed roads in Batpora. The girls were no longer doing mere talking. Their actions were speaking volumes about them. And with that, they ended all speculations. Appreciations poured in. And soon, many other girls from the area expressed desire to join the Aafreen Youth Group.

Steadily, the group’s strength rose from five to fifteen. The change they heralded in the area also motivated boys, who too expressed their wish to be the part of group.

Last month, a married woman was reported dead in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district. The preliminary reports suggested that it was a case of suicide. But Aafreen Youth Group smelled rat. They dug up the details and revealed: it was a cold-blooded murder triggered by a pending dowry demand!

The grieved parents of the slain lady had no support to fight against the ‘killers’ of their daughter. The deceased daughter had already informed them about the physical torture her ‘educated’ in-laws had subjected her through. The prolonged period of that torture had ultimately devoured their daughter. But they had no idea of justice. They had almost lost the battle well before they began it.

It was during that period these girls showed up with help. They started their own investigation into the case. Within a short span of time, they gathered some solid evidences against the in-laws of the slain lady, who are all teachers by profession and economically sound.

The next moment the girls went to Women Police Station, Rambagh for filing up the complaint. But their complaint wasn’t entertained! They were informed: let the post-mortem report come! But the report was almost 45 days away. Sensing the urgency, the girls decided to act well before the final report. They collected some more evidences. And ended up unearthing a disturbing fact: the lady was slammed on her head before forced to drink poison! She had revealed it to doctors at Kangan Hospital before slipping into coma. Three days after, the lady lost the battle of her life.

The girls collected the medical report from Kangan Hospital and presented it to Rambagh Police Station. As a result, the in-laws of slain lady were put behind the bars. When the word of their daredevil act spread in Batpora, the girls were hailed by all. But amid accolades, there was a palpable threat in the air!

The ‘culprits’ had some political links and were quite influential to hush up the case. But the girls, in spite of knowing it, didn’t call it quits. “We knew, the case we were fighting would have some backlash,” said Aabida, 18, one of the five core members of the group. “But then, we have learned to shrug off fear for the larger cause we are upholding.”

It was due to their persistent efforts that the husband of the slain lady confessed his crime committed in connivance with his sister, mother and father. The logical conclusion of the case was able to bring some relief to the grieving parents of the slain lady.

“Do you know, how her in-laws were treating her,” said Dilafroza, 18, another member of the group. “They were telling her: ‘don’t sit there; it is your mother-in-law’s place. Don’t sit here; it is your father-in-law’s place. Go and sit near the door.’ All this treatment was given to her as she failed to furnish the dowry!”

The slain lady was mother of two and pregnant when murdered! “It is pathetic as well as ironic! She was a graduate and her Class 10 sister-in-law used to tell her: ‘your place is near the door!’ ” Dilafroza claimed.

The five core members of Aafreen Youth Group hail from the modest backgrounds. “I told my parents that as long as girl can’t stand for her own rights, she would be continuously perceived as weak and vulnerable,” said Bisma, 17, the youngest among core five members of the group. “That is why perhaps, that lady from Ganderbal lost her life.”

All these five girls are presently pursuing Bachelors in Humanities at Government Women College, Srinagar.  Along with college work, they also carry their group activities.

In Batpora, everyone call them Aafreen Girls. As of now, they are focussing in their own area. “Let us put our own home in order first before venturing out,” asserted Yasmina.

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