When I arrived at the Room to Read office in Delhi on Monday 6 December 2010, I ‘knew’ that Room to Read had four key programs – building schools, establishing libraries, publishing books in local languages and educating girls. What I didn’t know was that each of these programs is so much more complex, involved and customised to suit the local environment than that simple categorisation had led me to believe. Much less did I expect that just 24 hours later, I would be tearfully watching a group of bold young Indian girls play a simple ‘game’ that powerfully demonstrated the richness and impact of that fourth program – Girls’ Education (GEP).
I was on the Chapter Leader Trek to India – joining a dozen other Room to Read leaders from around the world, visiting a range of Room to Read projects in the north-western Indian state of Rajasthan. Five days and countless stories and experiences later, it was sitting in a schoolroom in the village of Kakalwada on that second day provided an amazing insight into the power of educating girls.
There we met a group of girls who were part of the school-based GEP, where all girls at the school receive the support they need to learn, develop and establish themselves in the community. Sitting cross-legged around the outside of the small classroom, we looked expectantly at the grid chalked onto the floor. In each of the ten squares was written a question, both in English and Hindi. As I strained to see them all, I noticed questions ranging from “name two sources of vitamin A” to “what are two changes that happen to the body during adolescence?” and “what are two of your areas of weakness?”. Silently dreading being called on to answer any of those questions, the game began.
A ‘pass the parcel’ activity determined who had to get up and answer one of the ‘life skills’ questions. If you were left holding the marker when the drumming stopped, you had to get up, stand with your back to the grid, and toss the marker over your head. Wherever it landed – that was your question.
It was at this point, barely 30 minutes into the site visit, that I had all my expectations shattered and my hope sustained. One by one, girls stood and boldly, confidently and clearly answered each question. I held my breath as one girl, wearing a black cardigan and yellow scarf, rather than the blue uniform of the other girls, calmly outlined three dangers of child marriage. It was only later that I would find out that she, at fourteen years old, had been married for two years.
I realised then that any change in the role and status of women in this community was to be twofold. We were definitely part way there. Alarippu, the NGO partner facilitating the life skills training, was obviously doing an amazing job; it seemed out of the question that without the training and support they had been receiving, those young women would have been able to so clearly articulate answers to questions that would have had a bunch of Australian girls in fits of giggles (all the while with eight strangers and several male teachers in the room, and half their village peering in the windows). But what about their community? Was there really going to be any change in the perception of the role and status of these young girls?
On the one hand, it is honestly too early to say. Room to Read has been in this community, working with Alarippu, for just four years However a few things confirmed that Room to Read is doing more than just telling the girls they have rights.
Firstly, the topics about which they are educating the girls do empower them, no matter what restrictions are placed on them from a cultural point of view. They can make better choices about food for their families. They can understand what is happening to their bodies during puberty and have the confidence to discuss these changes and seek support. Suddenly the state of their health, their bodies and their minds becomes much more of their own making than they may ever have perceived possible.
Secondly, the entire community seems to be engaged. It felt like the whole village turned out to greet us – drumming, dancing and welcoming us. They see the value in the work of Room to Read, such as how the reading room set up there is a community space and is not just used by students. So despite the fact that in this same village, a group of primary school girls told us that their favourite past-times outside of school were “cooking”, “sweeping the porch”, “fetching water” and “making chapatti”, there is a sense that the impact is being felt far beyond the students themselves.
I will never forget the mother who told us, through a translator, how she and the other mothers were so impressed that “outsiders” like us could care so much for their children, that they were going to do everything they could to support their daughters. (By this stage, there was not a dry eye in the house).
Finally, Room to Read understands that their work in the community needs to be viewed holistically. As well as working with a partner NGO who knows the local community, they engage “Social Mobilisers” – young women who are from the local community who can support the girls. They know the girls, their families and the challenges they face. They work closely with the community to ensure the girls are able to stay in school (the young girl who was already married being a perfect example. Traditionally she would have been withdrawn from school. But she, along with two others in that class who were married at a similar age, were still in that classroom. That, at the very least, is a huge success in a remote, traditional village). The social mobilisers help to ensure that whatever work is being done by Room to Read and NGOs like Alarippu can be successful by embedding it in the community.
It’s a constant battle, fighting some of the most complex and entrenched institutions and cultural norms. But by adapting and working closely with these communities, I do firmly believe that we can create lasting, system change through educating girls.