Reflecting on three months of Coastal Grassroots Fellowship

by Thisam Mahsana OK

The second cohort of Coastal Grassoots Fellowship (CGF) for women from coastal communities of the Palk Bay region of Tamil Nadu started last March with a wonderful group of twelve women. They were excited about this fellowship opportunity and the learning platform that it offered them. Together we developed the structure for the fellowship programme, keeping in mind the objective of enhancing their leadership qualities and capabilities. As a fellowship coordinator, it was thrilling to work with these amazing women.

Their journey throughout the fellowship is a constant source of inspiration for me. In spite of being born and brought up in traditional fishing villages, prior to the workshop most of the women had never gone out to the sea in a boat or visited a fishing harbour.  However, all of the fellows have now found a way to go out to the sea in their motivation and interest to know more about the sea, coast, community and self. In one of the meetings, a CGF fellow shared: “If I had gotten this group (CGF fellows) eight years before, I could have pursued my dream of becoming a journalist”.

In the past three months of fellowship where fellows mostly concentrated on skill development and building networks in their own villages, what caught my attention was the way in which the fellows responded to the gender roles imposed on them. To describe one incident, as part of field photography training, fellows expressed their interest to cover a boat race happening in one of their villages. Fellows from that village approached village leaders to get permission for covering the event, but this was denied. When the Dakshin team, along with the fellows from the neighbouring village reached the village in which the boat race was being held, the fellows, rather unhappily relayed the message that women are not expected to go to sea. Also, they are not expected to click photos in the middle of a male-dominated crowd. The village leaders were receptive to the idea of our resource person, a man, going to the sea and taking photos, and even offered assistance. But, were they strictly opposed to women doing the same? To ensure that the fellows still got an opportunity to complete their fieldwork photography, we changed our plans and went to another village. And our fellows were far from deterred! 

The next day at the workshop, while the fellows were discussing their experience in the field, one of our fellows expressed, “I am still excited about the fact that we were able to initiate a discussion on the inclusion of women in public spaces in the forty-one years history of this festival.”

Each day I spend with them gives me a lot of lessons – about resilience, compassion, and passion. The way they navigate through familial responsibilities and the fellowship work is remarkable. The other day, one of our fellows was sharing how this opportunity has changed her as a person. She said, “I am 36 years old and I’ve previously worked as a Tamil teacher. I was at that point in my life where I thought that this would be my life and that I won’t be anyone special or have dreams in life. But once I joined the fellowship and after I met these women who are working with me, I am proud of the person I have become.

As I proceed to another month of the fellowship, I am excited and looking forward to learning new things from the fellows, and to seeing the leadership journey that they have undertaken and the changes they will begin in their villages, communities, and their own lives.

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