March 19, 2011

RP-2: A mentor's story -- Dealing with a runaway mentee

What should a mentor do when her mentee, a young girl, flees home where she had been deeply unhappy and gets married? Here, one mentor shares her experience

CHILDREN and youngsters face diverse kinds of challenges in the early part of their lives and as they grow up. There are cases where youngsters run away from their homes, or from the institution or centre caring for them. How they cope with the situation can also influence — positively or negatively the decisions they take later on in life. Often the presence of a mentor or friend can help them deal with the situation.

Last November, we came across one such story from a mentor at one of the Reflective Practice Sessions* and we discussed it again at a refresher training meet in January.

For about a year, Geetha had been mentoring Priya**, who came from a partner centre in Roopena Agrahara. Priya had failed two subjects during her Class X exams but had rewritten and cleared those exams. She was hardworking and ambitious and she was very keen to go to college. With the help of her brother and uncle she eventually managed to gather funds to pay for her tuition fees and started attending PU college.

Geetha learnt through her conversations with Priya that her father was abusive and caused trouble at home: he was an alcoholic who would come home drunk most days. There were constant fights between the parents. To get away from this disruptive environment and to be able to focus on her studies, Priya moved in with her aunt for some time.

Priya was often sad and she had few friends. She always talked about being unhappy over her home situation and said that she felt the need for someone like Geetha to talk to as there was no one else.

FOR MORE THAN A MONTH Geetha had been unable to speak to Priya. She tried to contact her but every time she was told Priya was not there or had gone to her native place. Eventually she learnt from Priya’s mother that Priya had run away from home. This came as a shock to Geetha as she had not heard from Priya about this decision.

In order to understand the situation Geetha paid a visit to Priya’s home and learnt that she had run away from home and moved in with a boy and they had got married. Priya’s mother claimed that Priya was being tortured and held against her will and that they had filed a police complaint. When the police summoned Priya’s family and the boy’s family, Priya insisted that she did not want to return to her home. A week later Priya’s mother claimed she got a call from her saying she wanted to come back. Her mother insisted that the boy was uneducated and belonged to a local gang. She also said she was worried about her daughter's welfare. She claimed the boy had threatened the family and influenced the police and she insisted that Geetha persuade her to return to her family.

This left Geetha extremely worried and confused. She was unsure how to proceed. Should she make an effort to rescue Priya or should she seek help from the police or other organisations? Was she in danger?

Geetha thought about it and decided to first gather more information, establish contact with Priya, and hear her side of the story. She spoke with Priya's former school principal with the help of Dream A Dream staff. He acknowledged that he was aware of the situation but did not want to interfere because it seemed as though Priya had willingly left home.

Geetha managed to find the address of the boy (with whom Priya was allegedly involved) and she set out to visit the boy’s home to understand the situation. This was a difficult task as Geetha was unsure how the boy’s family would receive her and wondered if there would be trouble, as Priya’s mother had warned.

However, she managed to meet Priya without any difficulty. Priya and her new family welcomed her. Geetha managed to find some time alone with Priya to check if she was fine and safe and had anything to share or needed any help. Priya assured Geetha that she was very happy there and had chosen to leave home on her own will. She could not cope with the troubles at her home and needed a way out. That’s when her boyfriend came into her life. The family members of the boy were warm and welcoming and extended their hospitality to Geetha. Priya now plans to get legally married in a year (she has yet to turn 18) and, in the meantime, continue with her PU studies.

AT THE reflective practice session in January, after sharing her story, Geetha talked about how relieved she was now knowing that Priya was safe. She also expressed relief at having been able to establish contact with her mentee again. Perhaps moving out was the best solution for Priya because she had been unhappy at  home where her parents were always fighting. It’s therefore understandable that she would take such a step. Regardless of the change in Priya’s life, Geetha said she was committed to continue remaining in touch to support and mentor her when needed.

Fellow mentors validated what Geetha may have felt: the anxiety of not knowing whether her mentee was all right and the frustration at not being able to take suitable action. They agreed that they would have felt the same in similar circumstances and they said it was understandable why Priya would go down this road given her challenges at home and the circumstances.

They also agreed that as a mentor Geetha had taken the right approach by confirming the facts of the story and going out of her way to locate Priya and ascertaining if she needed support and offering to be there for her. That would definitely have been one of the few validating or positive or non-judgmental interactions Priya would have had with an adult after leaving home. Most family members would have been very critical of her decision. Sometimes difficult situations at home do cause children to run away and sometimes children are afraid or ashamed to talk about them.

In this case Geetha’s visit to her new home and offer of support and understanding would have helped Priya cope with the situation and move on. Perhaps there will be new challenges in life after marriage revolving around Priya's relationship with her husband and in-laws, or, perhaps, concerning her continuing education, where Geetha could continue to mentor her, although Geetha does wonder if she will be able to continue meeting her considering Priya’s changed circumstances.

AT SUBSEQUENT reflective practice sessions, Geetha talked about how there were times when she wondered if this had been the right decision for Priya and how this would affect Priya's life. Also, Geetha said, there were times when she wondered if she had done enough as a mentor. These doubts do linger.

Most of us would think the best course for Priya or any girl today would be to finish college, find work, and then get married. But, unfortunately, early marriages are common in semi-rural areas and among the urban poor and the slum population in Bangalore, sometimes due to compulsion by family and sometimes as a normally accepted practice.

Eloping is also commonplace. It’s usually something teenagers are driven to do as they feel there is no other option; sometimes they see eloping as an escape from other challenges or troubles at home. It’s less likely to be as a result of not thinking it through. Young people are more intelligent and mature than we usually give them credit for.

Perhaps the best we can do is try to help or educate the youngsters about making life decisions and the possible consequences. After that, we need to let them take the most informed decision, although the outcome may not always be in our control or preferred by us. We need to learn to let go at some point and let them decide what they want for themselves. Either way, as a mentor you would have played your role. And it doesn’t end there; when difficulties arise you will continue to be there. For many of us this will be difficult. But that is the crux of mentoring. To be able to accept our mentees no matter what their history or background or decisions they take and still be there for them.
  • Compiled by Jeeno P. Jacob, Programme Anchor — Dream Mentoring Programme | Dream A Dream

* Once a month, mentor meetings are organised by Dream A Dream. The session is a forum to discuss challenges and seek support and advice from fellow mentors, senior mentors, and Dream A Dream.

** Name of mentee has been changed to protect her identity and maintain anonymity.

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