Fate wasn’t kind to Karishma and her sister when they were young. But not only did she fight to get both of them an education, she now leads efforts to empower other adolescent girls.
A narrow road meanders through Khamare village, lined on both sides by trees, small farmlands, and mud huts. Karishma’s tiny mud-and-daub home stands indistinguishable from the rest.
A boat capsize on the Wainganga river took Karishma’s mother when she was just 12 years old. Her father had, by then, already deserted the family and nothing could convince him to return to his two daughters – not even their mother’s death. Karishma was left in the care of her ageing grandparents, with the added responsibility of bringing up a sister who was just 10 years old.
“When my mother died, my biggest worry was how would we feed the family? How would I take care of my younger sister? How would I meet the medical needs of my ailing grandfather? I was so lost.”
“My father didn’t even ask after us. I was just 12 when I started working,” Karishma says, “But all this didn’t stop me from going to school!”
Karishma ensured her sister didn’t drop out either. “We just have each other – I knew even back then how important education was to our future.”
Neighbours and relatives thought differently. “The neighbours advised my grandparents to marry me off. I convinced them otherwise – but I had to do all I could to keep the kitchen fires burning. From farming to working as a maid, I did it all,” Karishma shares.
“Eventually, my younger sister Swati would join me in the fields. That would double our income,” she adds.
Karishma is part of the Magic Bus initiative to empower adolescent girls in 62 underprivileged rural communities of Bhandara in Maharashtra. She is among the 115 Community Youth Leaders (locally referred to as didi) who are encouraging adolescent girls to aspire for careers after completing their education and, simultaneously, motivating parents to give equal opportunities for education to both girls and boys.
Her work pits her against some of the most deep-rooted prejudice and stereotypes against educating girls. Karishma feels the toughest part is to convince parents to give equal opportunities to girls in the community.
“A lot needs to be done before parents understand the importance of education for girls. When I talk about girls’ education, they are mostly dismissive. Why would they want to listen to an 18 year old, that too a girl?” she asks with a smile.
Although associated with a cause she deeply believes in, Karishma never thought she could lead. “I was so buried under domestic responsibilities that I didn’t have time for anything else. The time I spend during the sessions with children puts me in touch with the lives of others around me. It is almost as if I was living in a cocoon so far,” she says.
In a year’s time, Karishma will complete Class 12. Her sister is in high school.
“I want to study further and earn better for my sister and grandfather. I do not wish to get married just because I have no parents. I can run my family on my own,” she says determinedly.
All of 18 years, Karishma is one of those individuals whose strength comes from getting over insurmountable difficulties.