We have similar stories of Ekta, who went on to teach girls at Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya and crack Azim Premji University and Eklavya, a prominent NGO in education from a village (then) without electricity. We have a story of Nalini, who is pursuing her passion of performing arts at Tata Institute of Social Sciences; and another girl, who has made it to JNU and is now preparing for civil services.
Over the years, our I-Saksham fellowship and its offshoots have seen a few of these girls charting their paths beyond our imaginations. As we look back, most of this has been a learning journey for us where the decisions and investments that we made to ensure the opportunities to learn, teach, earn, and grow reach to youth, especially girls in remote areas, are bringing positive results to some extent.
It wasn’t easy though, as the situations were so bad and continue to grow worse over time. Jamui and Munger are two Naxal affected districts in South Bihar where the three of us (Ravi, Shravan, and me) joined as Prime Minister’s Rural Development fellows in 2012. Sadly, the districts are still marred with abject poverty (more than 60% of the population are below the poverty line) and poor service delivery. These areas have been a conflict zone for decades. Marginal and landless farming families end up under huge debts (to the tune of 120% interest per annum) and distress migration is common. There is a visible Institutional vacuum for social and government services in the remote interior areas where extremism is more intense. So, the females and their liberty, choices, and life prospects are first to be guillotined. Typically, they are under-nourished and are dropped-out of school and married earlier; they are cut short of fulfilling their potential and thus their dreams.
All three of us are firm believers of the power of education to transform people, their capabilities, their mindsets, and eventually their lives. However, the best was that in almost every village we found a group of young people who were spirited to teach kids. A market existed and incentives and disincentives were poised to make them perform better, though there was a visible gap of approach to teaching, which in our belief could be filled through engagement, training, and proper use of technology.
So, engagement with these youth was the genesis of I-Saksham. By having them involved in our education programmes we started providing education to children in the area. It was difficult to encourage girls to join in as most of them were not allowed to travel outside, so we set up a temporary training centre within the village. That certainly shot up our operational costs, but we were happy to ensure that the girls get the opportunity to learn about pedagogy and the use of digital technology, which they could use to deliver quality learning to village children.
We also encourage our fellow trainees, who demonstrate strong will to teach, to open their own training centres and we provide them with relevant support to achieve their career aspirations. So, the core of our strategy is the triad of Building Capability, providing Long Term Mentorship, and supporting them with Relevant Opportunities.
The good is that through our Basic Tutorship Program, we have reached out to 1000 youth from 50 villages in 3 years and the fellowship program has got enrolments from 50 fellows from 30 villages in the 1.5 years since it has been launched. More than 600 of these youth are females. Large number of our training centres is female-only centres, where some of the female trainees have made it big and are now role models for others to follow.
However, there are few challenges that we have to conquer, such as migration-leads to drop out of children, which demotivate our youth and team. Being in Bihar, we do not get much institutional support. The youth is again the product of the same educational system and investment required in improving their pedagogical skills and subject concepts has to be for longer periods of time, which further means that the costs of delivery are high, compared to an urban situation. And this is why I share our story with Pinkishe; to tell people through the magazine how human resources are getting wasted in our own country and to tell them that we all need to come forward and work together in women empowerment. We as a society are not fair to our females. A number of stereotypes have been created, communicated, practiced, propagated, and institutionalized.
In 2017, one of our girl trainees was interested in a career in education. She applied for Azim Prem University and her entrance exam centre was given at Kolkata, overnight travel from Munger. Her mother was worried about expensive travel and stay in Kolkata. We arranged for her travel. The parents of the girl were not allowing her to travel alone. We booked tickets for her mother as well and asked one of our friends in Kolkata to be with them right from Howrah Station to an exam centre and back. Things look right. But then, just the night before the exam, she was not allowed to go. Distraught, we were later told that a son-in-law in the larger family ‘advised’, “If she studies so much, we would have to find a padha-likha (qualified) match. How will you arrange for ‘tilak’ (dowry) for such a groom?” We were upset. Where on earth this came from! And, how on earth would one respond to that!
We need to change all this. We need to end any sort of violence against women and violation of their rights, which can be done only by putting continuous, conscious efforts by each one of us. And, these efforts should be made not only within the more popular metro cities, but also in difficult places like Jamui, Munger, or other Indian villages. We all should talk about all forms of inequality and not just brush off our responsibilities towards our country’s women, because we all must endeavour to create the world where nothing is impossible.