Call to care: Chennai women volunteer to call a girl to check-up on them during lockdown

What can come out of a conversation? Plenty, it turns out, as women under lockdown volunteer to call a girl child in the city for the simple joy of an honest, human connection.
Express Illustration by Tapas Ranjan
Express Illustration by Tapas Ranjan

CHENNAI: Human beings are, in part, defined by their wants and needs. Apart from life-sustaining needs and the never-ending list of wants, for most of us, everyday life comes down to the simple things – a hug, a conversation, a touch of empathy, a sense of purpose. Aarti Madhusudan’s ‘Call A Girl Child’ initiative began on this premise — that there is a lot to be gained from five minutes of honest, human connection. A mere couple of weeks into the project, she has hundreds of women signing up to volunteer their time for a phone call with children supported by seven NGOs in the city. And this is just getting started.

Reaching out

It all began with a post and an application form on Facebook. After she put out a call for Tamizh-speaking women with access to a phone and time for a conversation, Aarti — who works with NGOs on building stronger boards — was flooded with requests from volunteers, overnight. 

“This was not a pre-planned project, there was no strategy to it. I just wanted to reach out to women at home (during the lockdown) and see if they will be willing to spend a little bit of time talking to young girls. Not the deep stuff like counselling or mentoring; just a conversation about what you like, what she likes, what’s happening in each other’s lives and the like. And let that evolve into something if there is a scope for it after the first phone call,” she narrates. As off-the-cuff as the plan may have been, Aarti shares that there were two objectives to this project. “One was to see if we can give people a taste of volunteering? We do not volunteer enough; maybe we do in the religious circles but not in the social sector. 

The second aim was to see if there is an opportunity for young girls to talk to a stranger and develop some level of confidence in being able to hold themselves in the conversation,” she explains. Once the credibility of the women was confirmed and the children’s consent was in place, then each volunteer was randomly paired with one girl and given a time for a phone date. 

Forging friendships

Despite all the apprehensions that came naturally, between the curiosity of the young girls and the eagerness of the volunteering women, the project took a life of its own. After her turn at the call, Archana Naik declares that this is just something nice to do in a day.

“It was something out of the ordinary. For people who like to chat, you don’t plan a good conversation. You just talk to somebody and it turns out to be a nice conversation. It was just one of those conversations with her,” she recounts.

The girl assigned to Archana was just stepping to class 9 and was quite proud of her academic prowess. She took great joy in detailing her outstanding performance in school over the years, the extra time she gets for her many projects, and her big plan of one day becoming a doctor. Encouraged by this tête-a-tête, the girl’s mother too shared the conversation — telling Archana about how good a daughter she has been blessed with. For Dr Lakshmi, who usually has trouble talking to someone over the phone without being able to put a face to the person, the child — who turned out to be quite talkative — came to the rescue. A shared love for dogs also came in handy, she says.

“She wants to take up veterinary medicine as a career because she loves animals. But she is still young and so we generally talked about animals. When she told me about a woman next door who rescues animals, I suggested that she work with her. Then, she says she is scared of dogs!” recalls Lakshmi. When the girl expressed interest in learning music, Lakshmi arranged for her own teenage daughter to pass on the lessons she was taking. Dharshini, after speaking with Lakshmi, remembers it as something very new for her. For someone who dreams of becoming a veterinarian, she received a lot of motivation and encouragement from her new-found friend.

“Even my parents have not asked me about my plans. She was very nice to talk to. During this lockdown, when I have not even been able to talk to my friends, she spoke to me like someone in my family,” she shares. Though the first call began with some level of hesitation, they have had several conversations since. And she is looking forward to more; including the music lessons.In her conversation, Akila received help on ways to go about her lawyer dreams. While the idea was still in the nascent stage, her conversation partner gave her some direction, she says.

Engaging further

Coordinating the project with the kids in Arunodhaya, its executive director Virgil D Sami is happy to have a constructive means of engagement for the children during the lockdown. “We started the initiative with women talking to girls. Women from various fields of expertise volunteered — teachers, musicians, IT professionals, journalists and more. Around 40 girls agreed to participate. And both parties have been happy with the interactions. One girl expressed interest in learning English and her caller has now arranged for WhatsApp classes (audio and video lessons and simple exercises) for a few girls. One caller’s daughter is handling music classes for another girl. Some have offered career guidance,” she details. With such success in the first run, she says they are likely to extend the programme far beyond the lockdown and include boys into the fold as well.

Aarti, on her part, wants to extend the project and call for Hindi-speaking women to cater to the next set of kids. But, her faith in the initiative goes far beyond what she can accomplish with this. “The need will always be very high. Every child, including my own, would love to speak to somebody else. The important thing is to check if the child (and his/her parents) wants that. Such background work is going with several organisations across the country. But every NGO can do this on their own; they don’t need you or me for it,” she suggests.

And so the conversations continue — about interests in cooking, making true the late father’s dream of a big house, the physical exercise you get out of Bharatanatyam, the last test scores, the universality of the term ‘akka’, and more. Perhaps, you can join in. 

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