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“When we first visited Sovni’s home and asked her family to enrol her into the nearest school, both her grandmother and mother vehemently opposed it. ‘Our daughter is already a grown-up girl. She doesn’t need to go to school. If she starts going to school, who will take care of household chores or graze the goats? Who will look after her younger brother, fetch fodder for the cattle and wood for the hearth?’ they said,” recalls Asha, a Team Balika (Community Volunteer) working with the non-profit, Educate Girls.
Educate Girls, founded in 2007 by Safeena Husain, empowers communities to facilitate education for girls in rural India.
Asha came across Sovni while they were collecting information about out-of-school children during their door-to-door survey.
Sovni wasn’t any older than nine. And yet, she had never seen the gate of a school, let alone held a book in her hands to ever write in it.
She lives with her grandmother, mother, three brothers, two sisters-in-law and their children. Her father, a daily wage earner, lives in Pali, where he sets up and moves mandaps for events and weddings. He only comes home once or twice a month.
Her mother was ailing at most times, her grandmother was old and her sisters-in-law busy with their own children. So, as the oldest daughter in the home, most day-to-day responsibilities, including babysitting her youngest brother, and even her nieces and nephews, were on her shoulders.
Whether it was trudging down the hillock to fetch water, graze cattle, fetch fodder or wood, she did it all.
Sovni isn’t the only girl in the village whose family had a resistant mindset towards education for girls. For the longest time, villagers felt that educating a girl would have no long-term benefit for her family.
“They will eventually be married off, bear and rear children. So, what’s the point of educating them? they would ask”, adds Asha.
One of the other arguments that most parents made was that travelling to school alone could be dangerous for the girls. It seemed ironic that the same concern was not felt when the girls ventured into the forests alone to fetch wood or graze cattle.
Other uninformed beliefs included that if the girls were educated, they would run away.
But the Educate Girls’ team wasn’t ready to give up yet.
Speaking to Sovni, they realised how a small part of the young girl really wanted to go to school.
She would often look on as the other girls picked their satchels, donned their uniforms and walked to school. But she couldn’t. How could she, when her own mother and grandmother wouldn’t let her?
It was only a matter of time until the team made its first crack into the wall of wrong mindsets that the family was caged inside. Thankfully, one of Sovni’s older brothers was willing to listen.
Soon, they started visiting Sovni’s home regularly. Sometimes with the village elders, on other days, with influencers and school teachers.
Their combined efforts bore fruit after the long haul of a year.
In 2017, Sovni was finally enrolled in Class 3. Today, 10-year old Sovni is studying in Class 4.
Now, apart from helping her family in household chores, Sovni goes to school every morning and even finds time to play with other girls her age.
“When we first enrolled Sovni in school, we had to keep monitoring her attendance. Enrolling an out-of-school girl is not where our job ends. The biggest challenge is to retain adolescent girls like Sovni in school,” says Surveer Singh, Field Coordinator, Educate Girls.
Sovni found it difficult to adjust in the beginning. She had never been to school, and though the bridge course helped, she had missed out on a lot of the basics. But with the team’s interactive teaching methods -the Gyan ka Pitara kit that uses visual tools, games and worksheets to improve learning — Sovni picked up the pace.
Today, with her knowledge of numbers, Sovni helps her mother with the counting of money. She also takes her younger brother to school. In addition to completing her own homework, she helps him study too.
Now her grandmother and mother understand the importance of education, feels Asha. She shares, “We couldn’t blame the women for being opposed to the idea of education, because as kids, they too had no access to this basic right. They genuinely thought that women belonged only within the four walls of the home.”
But Sovni’s education is changing that mindset. It is helping the women in her household realise that girls can step out of their homes and achieve any goal they set their eyes on. “The only way out is education,” states Asha.
Sovni’s family is now motivating other families in their neighbourhood to send their girls to school.
As we celebrate International Day of the Girl Child today, let’s hope that no other Sovni in our villages and cities is denied the right to live her childhood freely. This begins with letting a child live like a child, where they have equal access to education.
It is only when we empower girls with an education that they will become the achievers of tomorrow. Whether it is nutrition, legal rights, medical care or protection against discrimination and violence, the first step towards emancipating women and making them their own heroes is to believe in the power of the pen.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)