I’m blessed to have a cohort of friends who feel passionately about many of the same issues as I do. Last month, we found ourselves lamenting yet another horrific incident of child rape in India. Many of my friends questioned out loud, when or how the plight of young Indian girls will change. As disheartening as some of the stories are, there is hope. I began to recount one of my experiences on a field visit in Rajasthan with Educate Girls – an organization that is changing the narrative for girls in rural parts of the country – often the epicenter of every gender issue imaginable.
My team and I arrived at a mid-sized village several hours outside of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. Strangely, in an area where the birth of girls is usually cause for despair among families, in this particular village, the birth of a girl had been cause for celebration. Why the stark difference? Because some members of this outlier community had operated family-based prostitution for livelihood, and they had considered the birth of a girl auspicious as it meant another breadwinner for the family.
When Educate Girls arrived in this village, almost 5 years earlier, they began an intensive campaign to seek out a young community member who would advocate for girls’ education in that area. (These champions, or Team Balika members, become the heart and soul the cultural change that will occur in the community.) They found Shyama, an 18-year-old girl who was not engaged in prostitution and had just finished 12th grade. She immediately embraced the idea of becoming a voice for girls’ education.
Through Educate Girls’ training in leadership, classroom management, and pedagogy, Shyama was able to convince many of the parents of the prostituted girls to disengage them from the trade and allow them to attend school. Shyama hand-held each girl through the process of school enrollment and then remained in the classroom and worked alongside the teacher to provide tutorials to all students through an Educate Girls supplemental curriculum, created to bridge learning gaps. My visit was going provide an opportunity for me to see firsthand if the Educate Girls program had made a difference in the lives and culture of the village.
As we walked out of the car towards the school, we were met by an energetic young woman who introduced herself as the headmistress. She excitedly directed us to a welcoming courtyard, and I was immediately struck at the cleanliness and tidiness of the school – even the “chapals” (sandals) were arranged neatly and color coordinated in a straight line outside the entrance of the building. Clearly, the villagers took immense pride in the upkeep and appearance of the school. We walked into the first classroom – and despite the lack of light (the school was still without electricity), there was a brightness and cheerfulness that couldn’t be mistaken. The walls were plastered with color illustrations of world maps and of objects that seemed so foreign to the kind of lifestyle in the village.
The school children swelled with pride as they began showing off their singing skills. Their song quickly evolved into a story telling exercise – all in English. The teacher, the Team Balika member, and the headmistress spoke about the 100% enrollment of all the students in the village. Outside the classroom, many of the parents and grandparents had assembled for a School Management Committee meeting – very similar to a PTO meeting. I sat down with my team to observe as the meeting started. The teacher and Team Balika member began a conversation about the physical structure of the school – the parents said the faucet was running well, but that they needed more playground toys. There were discussions about homework and Hindi lessons. Although the women sat apart from the men, I was pleasantly surprised by how open and willing they were to speak and offer their opinions – albeit behind a veil. I began to ask them about the difference in philosophy from 5 years earlier, when many girls weren’t in school. All at once everyone began talking – they couldn’t believe how they used to view girls and their worth. They spoke of how they now take on more of the domestic responsibilities so that their daughters can attend school and finish their assignments. They spoke of human rights and economic independence.
The safety of girls becomes a real question with the transition to upper primary, and with the nearest school almost 18 miles away, this had, in the past, been a barrier to girls enrolling. To my astonishment, the villagers had become so vested in the idea of educating their girls that they collectively sent their daughters to the upper primary school (where Educate Girls’ interventions are also present). They would often visit their daughters on Sundays. I asked about potential marriage for any of these girls – and the fathers overwhelmingly said “absolutely not any time soon.” One father even said that his duty now was to find a suitor worthy of his educated daughter.
The change in mindsets from 5 years earlier was nothing short of transformational. I could clearly see a changed belief system and the prioritization of education. The Team Balika members, through their reinforcement in the community and engagement in the classroom, had fostered a love for learning in both boys and girls, nourishing their hopes and dreams!
As I gathered my bag and stood up to leave, another question crossed my mind – “Where is Shyama?” I asked. Her mother was among the women at the meeting and proudly told me that Shyama is in college in Jaipur, and her younger sister, Gunjan, was the current Team Balika in the village. The young girl who advocated for change 5 years ago, was now studying to become a lawyer. I walked away, thinking of all the futures that were going to change – as this village school is just one of 21,000 schools where the Educate Girls program is present.
Coming back to my conversation with my girlfriends, we agreed that the cornerstone of women’s equality and the prevention of violence against women is education, and the systems change aspect of the Educate Girls program creates better societies and raises awareness that gender-based violence and education disparities are disproportionately targeting and affecting girls. Opening doors for girls to opportunities and economic prosperity begins with guaranteeing access to education.
Educate Girls was the service provider for the world’s first development impact bond (DIB) in education benefiting over 15,000 students. The three-year DIB, launched in June 2015, has delivered strong results in its first two years, in some cases exceeding its targets of enrollment of out of school girls and improved learning, serving as proof of concept that outcomes can be achieved at scale. The final and 3rd year results will be announced on July 13 at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. To register for the event via webinar, please visit here.
Swati Narayan is the former US Director of Educate Girls. Educate Girls and is a non-governmental organization that holistically tackles issues at the root of gender inequality in India’s educational system. Their comprehensive model reforms government schools through community ownership and has helped to ensure over 90 percent enrollment and higher attendance, as well as improved school infrastructure, quality of education, and learning outcomes for all girls. Founded in 2007 by Safeena Husain, Educate Girls works in over 21,000 schools with over 4.1 million beneficiaries across Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. For more information on the DIB or Educate Girls, please contact Swati Narayan at firstname.lastname@example.org.