Common to many Indian languages, the word sakhi means a beloved girl friend, and denotes the camaraderie of female friendships. A sakhi isn’t just another friend, but one who can also double up as philosopher and guide. In Mumbai, Aarti Naik has become a literal sakhi to countless girls growing up in the city’s slums.
Aarti, who rose from the slums to become a changemaker, is the founder of Sakhi for Girls Education—an initiative to offer learning spaces for girls in her community.
Growing up in a slum in Mulund, a suburban neighbourhood in Mumbai, Aarti has always been privy to the challenges of a life defined by poverty and lack of opportunities. “Due to poverty, lack of proper guidance at home and poor focus on quality education at school, I failed in the 10th standard,” she recalls.
Despite the failure, Aarti was keen on studying further. Unfortunately her family wasn’t in a financial condition to support her education, and she decided to work and sustain her own higher studies. She says, “I did not give up, but at a initial stage, it was very hard for me to move ahead confidently and to come out from such challenging situations.”
She began to make jewellery at home and send them to supplies. Earning only ₹9 each day for her work, she spent three years before she made enough money to support her parents and finally go back to school. Not only did she clear her class 10 exams, she worked hard for a few more years and enrolled herself into an undergrad programme in sociology from from Yashwantrao Chavan Maharashtra Open University.
She says, “I thought that every slum-based girl faces the same difficulties that I did. There is a lack of awareness about the education, especially for girls. They constantly face so many socio-economic problems to continue their studies. Based on my own school life, I realized that my slum girls lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, so they fail to cope with their formal school. I felt that something should be done for their education.”
It was during this introspective period that Aarti decided to take up the responsibility of bringing about a change in the state of education for girls in her community.
Aarti founded Sakhi for Girls Education in 2008 and has been conducting educational classes, to supplement school curriculum, for slum girls ever since.
Due to financial struggles and lack of importance attributed to female education, young girls are often deprived of any educational support to enhance their basic school education. As a result, they are often unable to learn even basic reading, writing and mathematical schemes and are eventually forced to drop out.
The main purpose of the venture is to build on the literacy and numeracy skills of the students, so that they are able to express themselves articulately and master problem-solving skills not only for school but also their personal lives. Aarti also emphasizes on individual attention, so that the girls can find the ideal solutions to the problems they face at life and studies.
Starting out was not easy for Aarti, who received only a handful of students in her first few classes. Even as she struggled to teach the girls in the confines of her home, Aarti remained steady on her path.
“I started meeting the girls’ parents, especially mothers, and told them about my activities. I informed them about the difficult situation faced by girls and pointed out that due to lack of education, the mothers could not get good jobs. Gradually parents started to send their girls to participate in project activities. When I started the education project, there were only six slum girls, but after three months 23 girls had enrolled.”
Aarti conducts reading and writing activities and started a weekly vocabulary building project, keeping in mind the language requirements of higher classes. In 2010, she started a library with English books for the community’s girls and a year later turned the initiative into a door-to-door service to reach more slums. She also took up the reins of a livelihood skills centre to help building employment skills among young women and adolescent girls.
Having started the initiative single-handedly, Aarti has found more students, support staff and mentors from around the world.
In 2013, an international grant helped Aarti find a place on rent and set up her first Girls Learning Centre in the slum. She also educated them on practical matters like financial planning for their education through her Girls’ Bank initiative.
In addition, Aarti has also been running programmes for mothers in the community to offer them greater opportunities towards self-sustenance and empowerment. She says, “I feel today I am not alone. Even though I am a one-women army at my slum, I am moving ahead only because of strong support I get from around the world, from people who are socially responsible not only in their local areas but also globally.
In a country where proper educational facilities continue to remain a distant dream for a large section of society, Aarti’s story of success has been an inspiration to many in her community. It has also been an empowering, life-changing experience for the founder. “I was just a school dropout. Today, I am a changemaker and educating my slum girls,” she says.