New Delhi: Embedded in the diverse landscape of our social structure, a silent struggle persists—one that denies countless young girls the key to unlocking their true potential. This is not just an account of personal experiences but just a glimpse into a small subset of the 130 million out-of-school girls in India. The Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations provide an ambitious target to achieve by the year 2030. We aim to ensure universal primary and secondary education, with a focus on eliminating gender disparities globally. How deeply have the principles of SDG4 permeated our education policies, and in the lived realities of those I've worked with, to what extent have we translated global aspirations into local, transformative change?
As a female born in India and with more than a decade of working closely with marginalized communities of our country, this article serves as a poignant reflection of my lived experiences, offering a sneak peek into the real-life stories that underlie some of these sobering realities.
At the heart of this account lies my mother’s story. Hemlata (name changed for confidentiality), a powerhouse of potential in academics, sports, and arts, who relinquished her dreams due to early marriage, succumbing to societal pressures of a state known for its ‘Balika Vadhus’. Despite the unfulfilled aspirations, she invested her energy in raising me, imparting the values of freedom, ambition and societal change. She would always say, “Pursue your aspirations, dress the way you want to, and embrace your freedom, because you are free! Don't let anybody tell you otherwise." The fire to kindle change was stoked by my mother's unfulfilled dreams, halted by an early marriage. Her aspirations became my inspiration and motivated me to join Teach for India as a Fellow, steering my mission to serve those deprived of opportunities.
In 2016, during my Fellowship, as a teacher to 45 children from the slums of Worli, Mumbai, I encountered the stark realities faced by girls like Yagini (name changed for confidentiality). One afternoon, Yagini did not show up for class. After repeated calls for several hours, her mother finally picked up the call and said "She has spoilt our name, I have lost all faith in her. We will get her married. She will not come to school anymore." After inquiring further, I got to know that Yagini had made a male friend during her recent visit to her native place and she was just chatting with him. This was an indication for her family that they are now losing 'control' over her so they should get her married, to not let any obstacles come in the way of their ‘responsibilities’ in the future. What did Yagini have to say in all this? “Didi (sister- as she addresses me), I have so much more to learn and create in my life. I will do whatever my parents ask me to, please get me out of these marriage discussions.” I was appalled at the consequences this 12-year-old had to see for a mere friendship.
My stint at Teach for India, allowed me to meet children with boundless potential who hold aspirational dreams for themselves. Unfortunately, the socio-economic divide makes these dreams tougher to realize. As for young girls like Yagini, are constantly challenged by the patriarchal limitations that society imposes on them. At the intersection of gender and the existing challenges of the low-income section of society, girls like Yagini are victims of double marginalization. Gender plays a significant role in shaping the roles they have to take up, women in India struggle to shed the remains It took a series of counseling conversations to change their parent’s mind. Today, Yagini is in college and also teaches other Teach For India children in her alma mater as a volunteer.
A year ago, I transitioned to working with rural India in the capacity of my new role as a Program Partner at Teach for India. This gave me the golden opportunity to work closely with Swati Singh, Founder and Director of Muheem a thriving NGO in rural Uttar Pradesh. Muheem is challenging the status quo of inequity based on caste and gender while working closely with the marginalized communities in Uttar Pradesh. One such community spread across several villages of Uttar Pradesh has an overall literacy rate of 3%, plummeting to 1% for women, as per the latest census. Picture this through Kavita’s life (name changed for confidentiality). A 15-year-old, who has never been to school. Growing up for her has been about household chores and safeguarding herself, 'taaki woh gandhi na ho jaaye' (So that she doesn’t get impure) as per her family. 'She's grown up, get her married before it’s too late!' her parents contemplated early marriage.
From Hemlata to Yagini to Kavita, 30 years later, young girls in India are yet battling to earn the right to choose for their lives. Their stories aren't just isolated incidents that show the intersection of social issues with the denial of the basic right to education in our country. The prevalence of girl-child marriage in India continues to remain a significant concern. With the start of Muheem’s Paathshala Program- A Community open learning space, Kavita finally began to learn to write her name and grasp basic calculations in the Paathshala. Seeing her competencies in sports and leadership, Muheem offered Kavita a job as an assistant Sports Teacher. Since she now brings earnings for the family, her family has decided to postpone the thought of getting her married for some time. Kavita dreams of becoming a leader in Muheem, who empowers many other girl children from Paathshalas and pulls them out of the gambit of early marriage.
According to UNICEF, progress has been made in India towards achieving gender parity in primary education. However, challenges persist at higher levels of education, and dropout rates for girls tend to increase as they advance through the educational system. As per the 2011 census, the female adult literacy rate in India is at 59℅. The stories woven together in this narrative illustrate the struggles, triumphs, and untapped potential of girl children in India. While urban and rural settings differ, the common thread is the battle against societal expectations that threaten to stifle dreams. What is also common in these stories is each one of these girls has a mentor who believes in them and empowers them to move forward while embracing their freedom and accessing their rights. As we celebrate the victories of Hemlata, Yagini, Kavita, and myself, let these stories serve as a clarion call for action. Girl child education is not just a moral imperative; it is an investment in a brighter, more equitable future. It's time to collectively strive toward a world where every human, regardless of their gender, caste, class, creed, or any other diversity has the opportunity to dream, learn, and lead. The journey may be challenging, but the destination is one where every girl child stands as a beacon of hope and change.
Author: Neha Gujar, Program Partner, TFIx, a Teach For India Initiative
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