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Bolstering Young Girls towards a Future in Conservation

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On 9 May 2024, as I entered the Bolster Girls Campus in the evening, in the sweltering heat of Kottakkal, a town adjacent to Calicut in Kerala (a state in the Southern part of India), there was a flurry of activity with young girls getting ready for the four-day immersive camp. They were just done with their Secondary School Leaving Certification (equivalent to a sophomore year), which involved preparing for a competitive exam, burning the midnight oil, and studying all year around just to be able to secure a spot in the stream of study they want to specialize in their senior year. 

The two-year residential course within the Bolster Girls Campus is a space for girls from traditional Muslim families to bond and build solid friendships, and redefine their ideas of freedom. The camp encourages the participants to interact with the girls in the residential course. 

The author delivering her session

I was invited to deliver a session on ‘Gender and Biodiversity’. At first, I was apprehensive about ensuring that it would be free of jargon and complexity, which are a part of my everyday work. On the morning of the session, I went through what I had prepared, trying to repeat specific simple terms I had promised to use so as not to lose my audience, who were a group of twinkly-eyed teenage girls.  

What began as a simple exercise to nudge the girls to reflect on gendered roles soon became a revealing thought — that the traditional gendered role always puts women in nurturing roles and men into the roles of protection and guardians. I threw a slew of occupations and asked them what gender would they associate with it.

“Doctor?” – ”Man”
“Engineer?” – “Man”
“Nurse?” – “Woman”
“Carpenter?” – “Man”
“Actor?” – “Both Man and Woman”

After these prompts, I asked them why they would give these responses, to which the answer was that while women are also there as doctors and engineers; more men are there in these spaces. More women are nurses because they are better at caretaking than men. 

What began as a simple exercise to nudge the girls to reflect on gendered roles soon became a revealing thought — that the traditional gendered role always puts women in nurturing roles and men into the roles of protection and guardians. More women are nurses because they are better at caretaking than men. 

The author with another guest speaker posing with the participants

Asking these girls to keep this thought in their minds, I pivoted into providing the context of biodiversity and why we need conservation, including giving a general overview of conversation in India—with examples of the Protected areas around them in Kerala. During the session, I asked them what their mothers and grandmothers would do if they fell ill. This got them to share a few home remedies and usual tips and tricks that were practised at home. Their answers reflected eating Kanji or Congee (a common local name for rice porridge) with payar thoran (mung beans) to aid their digestive system and turmeric mixed into milk for colds etc. These examples became a basis for how women are keepers of traditional knowledge and how these knowledge systems are passed down from one generation to another. These “little nuggets of knowledge” are essential not just for the health of a household but also for the ecology around them, addressing the livelihood and food security needs of many communities all over the world. The session also weaved into personal journeys – particularly mine, into the conservation space.

It ended with the sharing of challenges and threats to these knowledge systems. We also talked about inspirational women who were fighting to protect biodiversity and change the landscape of conservation by challenging narratives. So that the next time they encounter a snake, they look at it with wonder and not with fear; this encouragement was received with excited glee and delightful giggles. 

After the session, several girls came forward and shared their keen interest in pursuing a career in conservation. One memorable moment was when one of the girls, Dhana Fathima, said, “I want to be a marine biologist.”

The other girls jokingly quipped, “You need to learn how to swim first!”

Fathima quickly responded, “Why should that stop me? I will get there! I am keen on learning more about the world below!” 

This wonderful interaction and experience made me realize why engaging with more young people, particularly girls, is vital. The ‘occupation exercise’ (mentioned above) made me reflect on why having more women in biodiversity conservation is important. As more women become examples and role models, soon enough, doctors, scientists, biologists, and others will no longer be associated with one particular gender alone.

One memorable moment was when one of the girls, Dhana Fathima, said, “I want to be a marine biologist.” The other girls jokingly quipped, “You need to learn how to swim first!” Fathima quickly responded, “Why should that stop me? I will get there! I am keen on learning more about the world below.” 

About Bolster Foundation
Bolster Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by modern, educated youngsters from a traditional Madrasa background. They help disadvantaged minority students in India design and support programs for their quality education, skill development, and career endeavours. Bolster Foundation shows them the world of opportunities by providing career mentoring, counselling, motivation, training in modern languages, and information and communication technology. In addition, the Bolster Foundation collaborates with local Madrasas and educational institutions to reform their curriculum, method of teaching, and infrastructure settings. Find out more here.


About the author


Shruti Ajit is the Programme Officer at ⁠ Women4Biodiversity⁠. She manages 6 women-led restoration projects in 6 restoration sites across Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Solomon Islands. Shruti’s career centres on researching and documenting community-led conservation. Her past work involved challenging exclusive conservation narratives by pushing for inclusive policies and evidence at the national and regional levels. Shruti also serves as an advisory member of India’s Global Youth Biodiversity Network (IYBN), promoting youth engagement in biodiversity conservation.

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