HYDERABAD • Unlike most girls her age, 13-year-old Archana was overjoyed when she got her first period.
Just the previous day, she had learnt about menstruation at a VOICE camp, a 10-day residential summer camp that she was attending.
"I learnt about why girls get periods. I also learnt that it is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a normal part of growing up and becoming a woman," recounts Archana, who is a student at a Social Welfare Government Residential School in Warangal district of Telangana.
"In our community, girls who get their periods are considered unclean. VOICE camp made me feel proud to be a girl."
Archana is among 30,000 adolescents who have found their voice at VOICE camps, an initiative of VOICE 4 Girls, a social enterprise based in Hyderabad.
"Statistics show us that around 23 per cent of Indian girls drop out of school when they start menstruating," says Ms Anusha Bharadwaj, executive director of VOICE 4 Girls.
The girls who attend VOICE camps come from families that are extremely poor and belong to lower-caste or tribal backgrounds.
"Girls in these communities are at risk of dropping out of school or being forced into early marriage. Almost 47 per cent of girls in India marry before they reach the legal age of 18. We want to change this statistic," Ms Bharadwaj adds.
At the camp, girls learn about health, menstruation, puberty, legal rights, gender, future planning, financial literacy, sexual health, violence and community leadership.
As part of the Sakhi Leadership Camp, girls are trained to act as mentors, peer leaders and awareness builders in their school and community. "This is their first step towards becoming community leaders," says Ms Bharadwaj.
She points out that they are already seeing the effects of the programmes, and many girls have started community-based projects after VOICE camp.
"We have girls who have reported child marriages, campaigned against abuse in their schools or conducted impromptu VOICE camps in their villages," says Ms Bharadwaj. "One of our campers, Manasa, recently addressed a national Unicef conference on adolescent programming."
VOICE hires and trains young and motivated college students from Hyderabad, Vishakhapatnam, Delhi and Lucknow to act as camp counsellors and impart the curriculum. "Camp is a fun space and every lesson involves song, dance, drama and play. It is as much a learning experience for us as it is for campers," says Ms Revathi Jala, a college graduate who has done several camp stints.
Says Ms Bharadwaj: "We have set ourselves an ambitious target of reaching out to 100,000 girls by 2020. I have a team as passionate as me about the cause and together we are certain that we can change the world, one girl at a time."