Educate Girls is changing the face of female education in rural India
By Leslie Patrick
With women’s rights still critical in India, the world’s second most populous nation, Safeena Husain knew that something drastic needed to be done in the area of female education. Thousands of schools in rural India lie forgotten by the government and the lackadaisical enrollment among girls leaves them more vulnerable to the dangers of poverty, becoming a child bride and perpetuating the cycle of women in India being treated as second-class citizens.
But Educate Girls–the innovative organization created by Husain–is putting a stop to the government’s apathy towards female education.
The plan is simple. From the students to the parents to the entire village, Husain has worked tirelessly for the past six years to change the way Indians view their daughters, and then trains the community to be held entirely responsible for female education.
While on assignment in India this fall, I had the opportunity to journey deep into the Rajasthani countryside to visit two Educate Girls sponsored schools, and see the positive changes wrought by this organization firsthand.
Sirohi is a small, out-of-the-way town in Rajasthan. From there, our jeep bounced and jarred over three hours through a scrubby, dusty landscape into an even more remote area. We passed through countless small villages, where I gazed in awe at the indigenous, kaleidoscopic clothing of the Rajasthani women, some with giant hoops in their noses, connected with delicate chains to equally massive earrings. Plastic bangles covered arms from wrist to shoulder, giving them the strange puffed up appearance of the Michelin Man.
I heard the school before I saw it, 53 students singing in Hindi at the top of their lungs. A simple cement block building, the school was dilapidated at best. Garbage was strewn all over the yard like confetti at a birthday party, and the classroom possessed a single chalkboard covered in wasps’ nests.
But these details didn’t stop the plucky headmaster (also the school’s only teacher) from enthusiastically summoning his students outside to put on a song and dance routine for the visiting journalists. Skirts of saffron, pink and chartreuse swirled as a haunting tribal tune filled the air. Thunder echoed over distant hills, but the ominous weather could do nothing to dampen the spirits of these exuberant children.
After the festivities, I interviewed parents and students for the article, and listened in awe as this tiny community explained their fervor for education. This forward thinking group of parents and children is somewhat of an anomaly in this part of India, where 68% of girls are married off before the legal age of 18, and 15% before the age of 10. Educate Girls is fighting this outdated practice by encouraging families to give their daughters an education.
Here’s how it works. First, Educate Girls comprises a School Management Committee to take responsibility for each individual school. This committee is required to be formed by law in every Indian school, however many rural or tribal area schools do not adhere to the laws, and the government does not inspect them. Comprised mostly of mothers, they work to petition the government to ensure that their girls receive a proper education and that the school is up to a certain level of standards, such as clean drinking water and separate bathrooms for the female students.
The next level is the Team Balika (Balika means “girl” in Hindi). Possibly the most important component of the Educate Girls model, Team Balika is mainly comprised of young unmarried women living in these tribal areas. Educate Girls trains the local young people (ages 18-25 approximately, mostly women) to be responsible for the education of the young girls in the village. The grassroots programs consist of going door to door to promote the enrollment of girls in school, putting on plays in the villages to educate the parents about the importance of education and the dangers of marrying their daughters young, and getting the police involved if they suspect a child will be married off before the legal age. The Team Balika also act as teachers' assistants, and as liaisons between the students, the parents, the schools and the Educate Girls organization. The team effectively ensures that female students are indeed attending school, and receiving what they need from their education.
Once the Team Balika has won the parents' trust and gotten girls enrolled in school, they then act as advocates to ensure that the girls remain there as long as possible. This is a unique idea within India, where poor government control and lack of community involvement mean that many girls drop out of school and disappear from the educational system entirely.
Additionally, Educate Girls works to incorporate the girls themselves to be their own change. They do this through a student council comprised of 13 girls, called the Bal Sabhas. Once voted into the council by their peers, the girls meet to discuss social issues and resolve problems occurring within their community. For instance, they might discuss what they should say to their parents if they try to keep them home from school, or what they should do if a friend is the victim of abuse. The Bal Sabhas girls council empowers pre-teen young women with leadership skills that are generally not instilled in girls attending Indian schools.
As the representative for Educate Girls explained the process to me, one small schoolgirl caught my attention with her electric smile. It terrified me to think that she could be married off by now, doomed to a life of poverty, abuse and no opportunity.
Cool rain began to pellet the countryside. Some of the laughing students ran through the mud, oblivious to the weather, while others sought cover in the tiny school building. They didn’t seem to mind the condition their school was in. In fact, they were proud to have it. It was a humbling experience for me, to see their glee at the opportunity to have this chance for education.
Husain’s goal with Educate Girls is to create a model that is fully sustainable within gender gap communities like the one near Sirohi. She dreams that this model can eventually become self-sustaining so that Educate Girls can then move to different areas of the country to continue this practice in other schools, thereby changing the face of female education in India.
Amidst the smiles and waves and shouted goodbyes, my heart swelled as high as the muddy streams we waded back to the jeep.
Crédit Steven Moore