Its 5:30 in the morning and the day has started.
The girls are rushing around the place to get ready for their schools and the warden is waiting for them to have a healthy breakfast. All the 110 girls assemble in the hall and pray for about 15 minutes. The warden enters the mess with her attendance register and starts calling girls from 6th class onwards. It’s Monday and a bowl full of tasty poha is served along with a warm glass of milk in which they are asked to add protein and vitamin powder. The warden is sitting in the left corner of the room ensuring that the girls are eating an adequate quantity of poha and milk.
The same routine is followed for lunch, snacks, and dinner every day.
I am sitting in my cabin and around 1:40 pm, I hear “Good Afternoon, Didi!”-“Hey, Didi!” The girls alighting from the school buses are rushing towards their rooms with heavy bags on their backs ,waving at me with a huge smile on their faces.
In the next ten minutes, the warden starts calling these girls for lunch and, like any other day, she starts marking the attendance of all the students and the quantity of dal/curry, rice, chapati, vegetable gravy, and salad served in their plates. “Anuja, put more salad in their plates otherwise you will have to finish the rest of it,” says Saroj Kanwar, the warden.
I am in the third week of my AIF Clinton Fellowship and have spent quite a good time here. But almost every second day, I am astonished by one or the other things they do for the current and the former students.
Veerni, my host organization, might seem like any other NGO which helps the socio-economically downtrodden girls in finishing their desired level of education but myopically, they are much more than that. They are a savior to child brides, flag bearer of women empowerment in rural areas, and a haven for orphans.
As an AIF Clinton Fellow, I am conducting an impact assessment study for Veerni. During the interviews with a few of the former students, I learnt that Veerni not only helped them in obtaining a wholesome education till 12th grade but has also been helping them in completing higher education. All former students who are currently pursuing graduation or have already completed it stated that Veerni has helped them with their college admission fee, tuition fee, hostel fee, seminar costs, career advice, and even legal counselling, among other things. They mentioned that they are extremely grateful to Veerni and would have never imagined having this life including the quality education, extra-curricular activities, nutritious food, shelter, dignity amongst others. In general, we feel entitled to these but it’s upsetting to know that these are privileges or dreams for many of them. Some of the former students also said that if Veerni hadn’t supported them with education and boarding facilities, they would have been married by now.
I asked, “What do you think is the right age to get married?”
Two of the students smiled and looked puzzled. They said the society wants us to get married before or immediately after completing 12th grade. I added, “Tell me what you think is the right age not what your family or customs say. What do you personally feel about it?”
All of them stated, “The right age is when the girl is ready to get married. She should at least be allowed to complete her education, get a job, and become financially independent. Only then she should be asked to get married.”
According to the Global Childhood Report 2019 released by UK-based NGO Save the Children, India stated:
“The number of girls in India in the age group of 15-19 years who are currently married is down by 51 percent since 2000, and the country’s average performance across a set of indicators related to child health, education, labour, marriage, and violence has improved. Also, India’s score on Childhood Index is up by 137 points, from 632 to 769, largely because of improvements in child health and survival. Teen births have also been cut by 63 percent since 2000 and 75 percent since 1990. This reduction has resulted in over 2 million fewer teen births in India now compared to 2000 (3.5 million v/s 1.4 million), meaning progress in India alone accounts for nearly three-quarters of the global reduction in adolescent births during this period.”
Nearly half of the students here are child brides but because of the educational and boarding facility, the situation has been improving. There have been cases where the former students or their parents have sought legal remedies to free themselves or their daughters from the shackles of child marriage and have been successful in doing so. The students and their families have now moved into a better life. Some of the students are pursuing higher education, some are working in the nearby cities, and some of them have chosen a happy marital life.
On the other side, I hear a lot of chattering outside my room. I look at my laptop’s clock and its 5:05 pm. Their homework time is over and now it’s time for them to have some fruits and then join Parbat Singh, their Physical Education teacher, to the playground. As I step outside of my room, I notice one of our Health and Sanitation Inspectors, Vimlesh Sharma, filling the monthly health check-up forms. Veerni conducts several weekly and annual student health check-ups including ophthalmologic tests, general physical examination, menstrual health tests, neurological tests, and haematology tests, among others. Veerni also takes these students to nearby cities or historic sites for picnics, movie theatres, water parks, etc. ensuring that they enjoy their childhood as much as possible. In my first week, I happened to draft a happiness curriculum for the students under which we teach basic life skills, watch documentaries and movies, teach basic art forms and play group games. Some classes on legal awareness, career counselling, and reproductive health will also be conducted to make them more aware of themselves and their surroundings.
These students are trying their best to fly beyond the horizon irrespective of their socio-economic conditions with a hand of support from Veerni. This unconventional NGO is nurturing our future bosses, artists, teachers, businesswomen, policewomen, nurses, doctors, army officers, lawyers, IAS officers, wives, mothers, and especially better citizens.
This reminds me of a quote stuck in my classroom’s notice board which stated:
“If you educate a man, you educate an individual but if you educate a woman, you educate the entire family and a nation.” – Mahatma Gandhi.
 Global Childhood Report 2019, Save the Children, Pages 7, 14 and 29, https://www.savethechildren.org/content/dam/usa/reports/advocacy/global-childhood-report-2019-pdf.pdf; see also “No. of married girls in India in the age group 15-19 yrs down 51 pc since 2000: Report,” May 29, 2019, The Economic Times, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/no-of-married-girls-in-india-in-age-group-15-19-yrs-down-51-pc-since-2000-report/articleshow/69553505.cms?from=mdr