One of the challenges PORD faces when working with female children is helping their parents understand why its important for them to continue their education. It is customary that as soon as their daughters mature, families begin the search for a suitable mate.
Due to fewer children studying past the 10th grade, many government schools near villages shut down, and those who are interested in studying are forced to travel long distances to do so. This journey to and from school elicits fear in the hearts of parents, particularly those with female children, as it is common for them to get stolen, raped, harassed or disappear forever. During one of my home visits, one parent spent three hours telling me heartbreaking stories about the families who lost their children to such tragedies.
Therefore, the obvious solution to them is marriage, because in their eyes, marriage equates to safety. The age-old idea is that if they send their child to school, they don’t know if she’ll make it back, and if they leave their child at home, they won’t know if she’ll be there at the end of the day. If she gets married, she’ll have a husband and in-laws to protect and care for her at all hours of the day, and they won’t have to worry.
In these situations, we speak to parents about various government schemes available to them such as enrolling their children in government hostels located close to the schools. This way, they won’t have to worry about the safety or well-being of their children, and it wouldn’t cost them a dime. In one village however, a young man and his friend decided to change things on their own.
Srinivas and Sreedhar grew up watching their sisters and childhood friends being forced to lead a life they did not care for. Srinivas’s sister would watch him cheerily leave for school while she dismally helped their mother complete the household chores. Within a month of finishing 10th class, she knew who she was going to marry. Srinivas’s parents were too frightened about their daughter’s safety to think about her desire to further her education and become a nurse. Though he was very angry at them for a long time, looking back, he understands why they did what they did. His sister now has three children and lives close to her parents in the village.
Srinivas however, had the good fortune of continuing his studies. He left the village, graduated with a degree in education, and instead of finding a job in the city or in a private school, decided to come back to his village with the intention of restoring the government school that closed down when they were young. When he came back, he discovered how abysmal the conditions of the schools were, and knew he had a big project ahead of him.
His first task was to approach the Sarpanch (the head of the village). When the Sarpanch responded unenthusiastically, he went door-to-door with the help of our PORD team and procured 500 signatures from parents demanding that action be taken to bring these schools back to life. Once he collected the signatures, and had the support of the Sarpanch, the rest was just a matter of time. After many meetings and heated discussions with the district police department and the district education minister, he gained the monetary resources to start work to develop the school.
Members of the the community had known Srinivas and Sreedhar their entire lives, were confident in their abilities, and willing to help in any way they could. They started by painting the entire building and making sure the area was safe enough for children to play in. They built three bathrooms, decorated the classrooms, bought reading and writing material, and hired two teaching assistants. Within a week, they had 60 children enrolled and were ready to begin classes.
Witnessing the grand opening of this school back in October and visiting it now have been a humbling experience. Parents walk their children to school on their way to the field and have no qualms about their safety. He teaches classes with more exuberance than I have seen at any other school I’ve visited, and the kids love it. They ask questions, stay and do homework, and simply love to learn. His wife and sister cook all the meals for the students with the money the government provides and have been a vital part in the school’s success.
During school hours, the school functions normally with interactive and innovative lesson plans. After hours, they leave the space open for children to do their homework or just play outside. He believes giving children a free space away from their home will foster friendships and creativity. To further enhance the space, he is now contemplating building a small library for the children.
It’s been inspiring to observe how these young men motivate children, and more importantly, their parents every day. Everywhere around us, we see educated people trying to find a way out and leave to make a better life for themselves somewhere far away, but rarely do we hear about people who leave and come back. This story serves as a beautiful example of how young people truly are the heart of development.