This opinion piece was written by Dr. Shruti Kapoor, a gender equality activist and founder of Sayfty. If you’re interested in writing an opinion piece, take a look at Apolitical’s guide for contributors.
Growing up, I read children’s books that constantly perpetuated gender stereotypes. In 99% of the stories, girls and women were princesses, beautiful, weak and in need of rescue by some sort of Prince Charming. Almost always the story ended with the girl getting married and then “living happily ever after”.
Where were the books challenging gender stereotypes? Where were the books in which the girl was the protagonist — and didn’t always have to get married?
When I had my daughter two years ago, I decided to tell her different stories. I began to look for children’s books with girls as protagonists — but I had a hard time finding them.
So, we decided to launch a campaign through my organisation Sayfty, an online platform that educates and empowers women and girls against all forms of gender-based violence. The new campaign was called #RebelBooks, and it focused on bringing children’s books that empowered girls into the public eye.
Children are impressionable and begin learning from a very young age. They form opinions and act upon things they see and learn from, and are influenced by the books they read. So the goal of the campaign was two-fold: to create a resource page of empowering children’s books for parents to refer to and eventually see the positive impact of the #rebelbook movement on children through our pilot workshops.
Within a few weeks of launching we got hundreds of book recommendations from people on social media. They would snap a cover picture of a #rebelbook and share it with us. Based on the recommendations, we compiled a list of rebel books.
At Sayfty, we believe that the root cause of gender-based violence is the acceptance of gender stereotypes. In phase two of the campaign, we piloted the rebel books campaign in Anupshahr, Uttar Pradesh, India with 55 girls from Pardada Pardadi Educational Society.
We chose the state of Uttar Pradesh for this pilot because over half of female students drop out before completing grade 8 due to lack of toilets, to get married (72% of girls are engaged or married by age 15), or to work in fields. In Bulandshahr, the region within Uttar Pradesh that Anupshahr is located, only 55% of females can read and 47% can perform simple arithmetic tasks like subtraction. Because of the large educational gap, girls in rural settings are stuck in stereotypically female roles in the domestic sphere. They are rarely exposed to empowered women in their daily lives.
The book chosen for the campaign was “I Need to Pee”, written by Neha Singh, selected because it connects female empowerment with bodily needs. The story is relatable and common. After reading and discussing the book, students wrote book reports and attended a gender sensitivity training session to learn about gender stereotypes and their societal impact, and the importance of female empowerment.
At the end of our two-day workshop, the girls seemed confident in the knowledge that they could be empowered and choose their own futures. When one student asked if we could change stereotypes, and another student answered that we could, “with our thoughts.”
After conducting this training for more than 100 students, we at Sayfty believe that the Rebel Books Campaign can be replicated in any school or community setting, with both boys and girls. It is important for all children to read books that are about the experiences of girls and women to bring them out of the margins.
Reading books that challenge gender stereotypes are a good first stepping stone to gender sensitisation. Gender stereotypes are present in all sectors of society, in all parts of the world. The more they are talked about and questioned, the closer we get to addressing them to create safer, more socially just societies. — Shruti Kapoor
(Picture credit: Pexels)