Educating girls in India

NEW DELHI, India — Next to a railway line in Okhla, a polluted industrial area in south Delhi, 20 young girls sit on the floor of a small brick shed and follow a simple math lesson that's being scribbled out on a small blackboard. In another corner of the room, toddlers crawl on mats as a young woman watches over them.

Welcome to Project Why, a 10-year-old organization started by Anouradha Bakshi to help educate India's poor because, she said, "It makes that little difference."

The girls in this after-school program are as old as 9 or 10 — they look younger due to malnutrition — and are in grades four or five in their regular government schools. Despite their age, they still don’t know basic math. The toddlers are their siblings, who the girls — if not being taught here — would be taking care of at home, while doing household chores instead of their homework.

That's because these girls are from the poorest urban families and their parents either work in sweatshops or as manual labor. Most, inevitably, have several children.

But here's the problem.

In what is still a deeply sexist India, girls have a difficult time getting an education. The sons of these workers — very much like the sons of their richer counterparts — are treated like kings, or in this case pauper-kings. They get the lion’s share of whatever little food and milk their parents can buy, while their sisters and mothers often go without. And they don’t have to take care of their siblings or do any housework or odd jobs.

The reasons undergirding this gender imbalance are complex and cut across economic, cultural and religious lines.

“Many girls don’t go to school because the toilets don’t have doors," Bakshi said, citing one example. “When they have their period there is no place to throw their sanitary napkin or even to change it because the bathrooms have no doors. They are afraid their uniforms will be bloodstained if they can’t change and so they stay at home. And when the girls say they don’t want to go to school the parents easily agree without questioning them as they would their sons,” she explained.

In addition, due to various caste and religious reasons, many parents don't send their daughters to school, ever, or stop their education after they reach puberty. “Many parents don’t want men to teach their daughters,” said Pushpa Kumar, the Okhla’s center’s teacher. “We tell them 'let the girl learn something. We will make sure women teach them,'” said Kumar, who wanted to complete her Bachelor of Arts degree but, instead, was married off by her own parents after her freshman year.

Kumar talks proudly of one girl whose parents had never sent her to school. After convincing them to send her to the Project Why center, and after studying there for two years, the once-illiterate was admitted into school in grade eight.

Project Why has been a huge learning experience for Bakshi, who has mostly self-funded the project, which also tutors some boys in separate classes. But the results have been worth more than just money, she says, especially for poor girls.

According to Bakshi, as many as 150 girls have graduated high school and 90 percent of them are today working. One is a manager at a small restaurant, another is an office assistant, and many others are completing diploma courses, she says. “One of our students, Janki [who doesn’t have a last name] has not just graduated high school but has successfully completed a diploma in business studies,” said Rani Bhardwaj, another of Project Why’s success stories.

When Bakshi met Bhardwaj, then 15 years old, she had dropped out of school at grade nine because she says she was beaten up by her teacher for bringing the tuition fee a day late. (Though these schools are mostly free, they charge a small fee at the secondary level). “She was bright and intelligent,” recalled Bakshi, but after her mother pulled her out she completely lacked confidence.

After being tutored by Project Why, Bhardwaj graduated high school and started working at Project Why. She's also taking correspondence classes for a Bachelor of Arts degree. “Now I feel I have some level,” she said in English, referring to the status she has earned with her job at the organization.

Pooja, a thin 12-year-old, has been at the center for about six months. She is still shy and points to her toddler brother, when asked if she has a sibling there.

And how does she like being here? “It is fun ... learning things,” she mumbled as she rushed off to join her girlfriends, many of whom were talking to each other as they pointed to the chalkboard.

The girls have, by now, grown a bit restive at me interrupting their lesson to talk to Kumar. But when they saw me leave, they made sure to stand up and shout, “Bye-bye, ma’am!”