“First I thought I would become a teacher because it is an easy profession, and as people say one doesn’t need to study much. But now I think I will be in the police and help the victims of domestic violence. Will you cast me as a heroine in your film?” 11-year-old Ruhee asks with a twinkle in her eye. Ruhee has had a change of heart, as she flirts with trading the confines of her gender for her aspiration...
Like so many other families, Ruhee’s family migrated from their ancestral village in Bihar, in hope of work and better educational facilities. Their new home, Bhanwar Singh camp, like many other Delhi slums, is a labyrinth of narrow lanes, open drains, community water taps, and pastel colored squalid mud and brick houses with roofs made up of cemented slabs and plastic sheets.
The neighborhood is dotted with shopping complexes, and posh houses of some of the city’s rich. Just like a typical slum, locals strive to make an honest living doing everything from driving auto rickshaws or taxis, cleaning houses, selling vegetables or as daily wage labourers working on the booming city's many construction sites.
A study by  International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) reveals that there are more cases of gender-based violence reported in urban areas than rural – urban areas not unlike the neighborhood Ruhee now calls home.
Women and Girls Lead Global, a documentary film and trans-media initiative to affect lasting change in global gender issues, aims to positively redefine gender role stereotypes in Indian society. With this goal in mind, we set out to explore the conditions that cause girls like Ruhee to worry so much about domestic violence and community protection, and to fear dreaming of anything beyond the practical.
Ruhee and other children from her community congregate to share their own childhood rituals of growing up and aspirations. “My brother doesn’t even clean his plate. I am the one who helps mother with household work. At times if he’s forced to work, he creates heaps of mess for me to clear. So I’d rather not have him work at all. He is better off doing what he does on most days, i.e. to eat and play”, said Ruhee, sheepishly, escaping the eye of her mother and brother standing next to her at the doorway of their one-room dwelling.
Children in this community, like anywhere in the world, learn very young to play a role. Girls are taught to be obedient and submissive. “Hide n seek, and three claps”, gleamed 10-year-old Meena with excitement on the games she likes to play with her friends.
“My brother and I always fight over the Television remote, he wants to watch wrestling matches and cartoons, while I love Hindi film songs and soap operas”, asserted Meena, with her head down in embarrassment, as the rest of her female friends giggled in secrecy over her love for Hindi film songs. “But I hate boys”, she added.
“Last week, my brother broke the head of my favourite Barbie doll. He hates them. I do not know why. Can you scold him?” complained 7-year old Asha.
“No! Girls don’t like cricket at all” exclaimed the three girls in chorus.
Boys, on the other hand, are taught to be competitive, physically strong, and often oppressive.
“Why should I train myself in cooking, when I have a sister”, asserted 11-year old Gautam, with a hint of wryness.
“I think I need to balance my brawn with my height and age,” chuckled Manish while seeking reassurance from his all boys’ gang. “Yes, girls do not need to exercise and be muscular, they have the police and their family to protect them”, said Amit in confirmation with Manish.
These innocent and playful confessions are often accepted as rites of our passage of life and growing up. But what happens when young girls and boys accept the roles set out for them? What impact do sports, entertainment, and household responsibilities have as children grow into adults? We are often oblivious to the fact that these seemingly simple childhood experiences point towards a looming danger of gender based violence.
“I have three brothers and I hate them because they abuse and bully other girls and the kids younger to them” said a relatively irritated Renuka.
“Last week a boy asked if I could be his friend. I slapped him because friendship with boys makes you weak in studies. It is good to be friends with only girls” she added.
10-year-old Renuka is seen as the leader of her all girls’ gang. She is what her community calls a ‘Tomboy’ for her roughness and outspokenness.
Gender socialization continues throughout the life cycle. Society defines the boundaries of the gender roles. At an early age children’s minds are molded by the values and behaviors of their gender, and identify what is socially acceptable as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’.
Boys who have less muscular strength, or are emotionally weak are considered to be ‘sissy’ and effeminate, while girls are expected to be weak and emotionally submissive. This chips away the possibility of building a healthy and equitable relationship with the opposite sex, and hinders the development as a person.
When girls or boys, women or men, are seen stepping outside the rigid definition of appropriate male and female behavior they become easy and socially-acceptable targets of violence.
“I can easily wear a short and a t-shirt, but it is unacceptable for my sister to wear such short clothes, it will be outraging modesty. Girls must cover themselves properly” declared Gautam.
“I will never allow my sister to roam with a boy in any park, alone in the evening” he added.
The expectations set out by their families and communities continue to affect the way boys and girls treat each other as they grow up. Likewise, exposure to violence can have a profound impact on children’s development. “I see my parents fight almost every night. My father comes drunk, and at times hits my mother if she forgets to do her work. It is normal for married couples to fight. I do not like seeing that, but I am used to it now” said Megha, fidgeting nervously with her fingers as she talked about her dad.
A study by  UNICEF indicates that as many as 275 million children worldwide are exposed to violence in the home. It further adds that children who grow up in a violent home are more likely to be victims of child abuse, and there is a strong likelihood that this will become a continuing cycle of violence for the next generation.
When children learn to expect violence in their homes as “normal” like Megha has, they become much more likely to accept other forms of gender-based violence as well. At the end of 2012, a tragic case of sexual violence on a New Delhi bus made international headlines. When the horrific story ignited a movement across India, children of Bhanwar Singh camp believe that had the girl not stepped out of the home late evening with her boyfriend, she could have avoided her brutal sexual assault and eventual death.
There is a desperate need to intervene, to introduce and to help these children discover the vicious process that makes them, their minds and their society vulnerable to violence. By working with local and international partners, this is where Women and Girls Lead Global hopes to make an impact in India. By engaging boys and girls through film and other forms of media, as well as through connections with mentors and role models, we encourage them to re-think their identities, their relationships, and their responsibilities. Perhaps by introducing a girl like Ruhee to positive role models – both on film and in person – she can indeed become a policewoman – or a teacher. Either way, she will be a heroine.
By Abhishek Srivastava, ITVS Country Engagement Coordinator, India - 'Women and Girls Lead ' Campaign
This story was written following a visit by ITVS' India Engagement Coordinator to the Bhanwar Singh community in Delhi, with Magic Bus. Magic Bus develops local community mentors who empower children from marginalised communities across India to break out of poverty, taking them on a journey from childhood to livelihood. Children (aged 7 and above) from Bhanwar Singh are enrolled in a sports for development curriculum incorporating 40 sessions a year, tackling critical issues such as gender inequality, health, hygiene and education, delivered by trained volunteer community youth leaders. These experiential learning activities are used as a metaphor for change.
ITVS and Magic Bus have partnered to incorporate the 'Women and Girls Lead Global' series of documentaries into the Magic Bus programme. By harnessing the power of media to improve the lives women and girls across India, the collaboration seeks to inspire action and drive change among children, parents and their communities on pressing issues such as child marriage and gender-based violence.