Empowerment Through Stories

The University of Chicago Ci3’s Kissa Kahani uses multimedia approaches to share stories related to gender experiences of Lucknow youth, and affect social change.

How do you encourage gender equity for adolescent girls in the most populous state in India—Uttar Pradesh—when more than half of them are married or in union before the age of 18, lack access to comprehensive sexual education and, often, do not venture outside their homes?

“Let them tell their personal stories,” says pediatric and adolescent gynecologist Dr. Melissa Gilliam, founder of Kissa Kahani, a multi-year international project that used multimedia approaches, storytelling and research techniques to promote gender equity in the urban areas of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. It used digital storytelling to explore issues around gender and how it affects sexual and reproductive health and family planning. Led by The University of Chicago’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation (Ci3) in Sexual and Reproductive Health, Kissa Kahani was launched in 2016 with funding from the Washington-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to explore the social determinants of adolescent reproductive health and well-being in Lucknow.


The project
Kissa Kahani lead researcher Suchi Bansal reports that this work picked up where other current research left off in identifying sexual and reproductive health challenges, social inequalities and barriers to access. “Our Ci3 research team employed non-traditional research methodology. In collaboration with Ci3’s Transmedia Story Lab, they organized story circles, body mapping, games and art [workshops] to provide a safe, comfortable space to young people to discuss their experiences of gender in their community. Lucknow youth were engaged to work on the stories emerging from these group activities to create first-person documentaries with music, images and narratives of young people communicating their daily lives, hopes and dreams,” says Bansal. Nearly 30 narratives revealed consistent themes of gender stereotypes for young women and girls, including harassment, limited educational opportunities and lack of mobility within their communities.


Examples of bias
Many of the stories describe family members reinforcing the societal norm of restricting young girls to their homes, such as in “Big Girl,” in which an aunt chastises her 10-year-old niece for playing outside with boys; in “Wings,” when brothers don’t allow their sister Kalyani to leave the house for a dance competition; and in “Custom,” the story of a grandmother who saves milk for only the boys in the family. 

Kissa Kahani found examples of systemic bias against women, notes Dr. Gilliam. “When you move around in Lucknow, you realize there are very few young women out on the street, which points to deeper issues of gender and mobility, impacting education, autonomy and other realms of a young woman’s life.” However, she adds, “Our qualitative research also discovered instances of mothers, fathers, sons and brothers creating spaces for young women, as in ‘The Scientist’ in which the main character, Akansha, speaks the truth to adults when gender becomes an unfair barrier. She tells her [school] principal that girls in her class were not given the same treatment [as boys] by their teacher. It’s Akansha’s future orientation and dedication to her goal of becoming a scientist that help mitigate that barrier.”


Rays of hope
Some of the stories tell of males actively responding to gender bias against women, such as in “The Listener,” in which Raman tells the story of the hardships faced by his mother, who got married at the age of 16 and lived in a mud hut with her children and distant husband. Upon hearing the story, his mother said, “Without me ever telling you anything, you have written the story of my life so beautifully.” In “Wings,” it is the father who scolds Kalyani’s brothers, saying, “My daughter will do what she wants to. If she chooses to dance, nobody has a right to stop her.” To which Kalyani replies, “Today, I feel like a free bird that spreads her wings and soars in the sky.”

The films were the first step in Kissa Kahani’s goal to engender change and reduce disparities in sexual and reproductive health. The stories resonated with schoolchildren from all over the country, when they were screened at the 10th International Chinh India Kids Film Festival and Forum, in New Delhi. And the films will continue to form the bedrock of the project, as Kissa Kahani works with partner organizations to share the stories online for a global audience.


Building partnerships 
Phase two of the project led to a series of locally-led projects designed to empower young people. Kissa Kahani partnered with many local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to create and implement interventions. “One local organization designed a program to support training for mother-daughter communication about sexual and reproductive health, while another NGO trained men who drive electronic rickshaws to step in when they see evidence of bias happening, thereby setting up new community norms around street harassment,” says Dr. Gilliam. Bansal shares the example of a youth-driven project through which “Lucknow youth designed a comic book that kids can read and relate to about gender-based discrimination and the differential treatment of girls versus boys.”


Road ahead
In 2018, additional funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides the opportunity for Kissa Kahani to build on its success. “Our next step is to identify scaling partners who can help us focus on a single program to reach millions of young people. We want to help contribute to policy changes at the national level to impact young people’s lives,” says Dr. Gilliam. “Ideally, our program will align with the Indian government’s priority for adolescent health and well-being.”

Hillary Hoppock is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Orinda, California.