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article imageHow does my garden grow? Special

By Moushumi Chakrabarty     Jan 29, 2015 in Health
By growing her own garden in a small village in Northern West Bengal, India, Monika Barman, a feisty 16-year-old girl is taking charge of her future.
It could have been a different story very easily - being married off at 16, with very little education, viewed as a burden by her parents and society in general. Motherhood at that age, with an underdeveloped body and mind could only result in limited options. In fact, that is what happened to her sister, Kanika, married off at 16, now the mother of a child, and prone to many health problems.
But Monika’s life took a different turn, and we are able to witness it and thanks to a California-based filmmaker, Megan Mylan, who took her film crew into the village.
Mylan said: “I was invited by the Sundance Institute and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to direct one of an inaugural group of films for an initiative that supports independent filmmakers looking at issues of hunger and poverty. Issues like that seem so huge, when we think of statistics. Each year 47% of Indian girls and 14 million girls globally marry before they reach 18. It's so easy to feel like these problems are insurmountable, that poverty, gender bias and traditions like dowry are too deeply entrenched to change. But I like to tell stories that get at what we can do about our problems, not simplified cheerleading, but taking a complex look at what it takes for things to change.
"I was pretty clear I wanted to focus on a girl empowerment story and after my experience making and distributing Smile Pinki, I was eager to work in India again.
"I feel like there is an unprecedented conversation going on in India about gender and how girls are valued. And everyone who works on these issues knows that adolescence is a crucial time in a girl's life and small investments in girls' lives have big payoffs. I knew I wanted to focus on a story where you see that clearly. So I started talking to friends and advocates who are focused on these issues. A friend sent me an article about the West Bengal girls’ empowerment through gardening program you see in the film and before I finished reading it, I knew I had my subject,” she added.
The 10 minute film After my garden grows depicts Monika working at her garden as part of an initiative by the federal and state governments to empower girls. They work with their hands to create a better life for themselves, and have some control over their immediate environment. Mylan points out that more than 50,000 girls in West Bengal are now growing their gardens and as a result, “girls are eating better, staying in school and marrying later”.
Mylan faced a number of challenges while filming in India, but the results have been worth it. She says, “Monika is a very strong-willed and opinionated 16-year-old. I was that sort of a teenager too, though I've mellowed a bit. So on that level, I felt a connection, but of course the circumstances of our upbringings could hardly be more different.
The biggest challenge for me was not speaking Bengali. You have to rely on a lot of eye contact and instinct and of course trust your translator. I've been really fortunate to work with great Indian collaborators. It always amazes me how well we can communicate despite not speaking the same language if we're motivated to do so.”
Understanding a completely different culture was extremely important to Mylan. She underlines how important it was for her not to demonize Monika’s father, as the villain eager to marry off his daughter at a young age. She recognized that he felt hemmed in by economic and social circumstances and the feeling that he had no options.
For now, Monika’s future looks different. “Her own expectations for her future have changed. Because of her garden she and her family are eating better, she's saved money to get back in school, and she knows her rights -- that it's illegal to be married before 18, and that she has a right to inherit land. Her role in the family has changed -- she's a provider, not a burden. Her parents have stopped looking for a husband for her and are eager for her to complete her studies,” said Mylan.
More about Garden, Girls, Film, Sundance Film Festival
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