In 1848, when Savitribai Phule and her husband Jyotirao Phule began the first school for girls in India, it caused an uproar in Pune. In the mornings, when Savitribai would walk to school, neighbors threw garbage at her in an effort to shame her. She and her husband persevered, and the school that began with just nine girls changed the way the city viewed girls’ education, eventually making Pune the home to many firsts. In 1885, Huzurpaga the first high school for girls was founded there. And in 1916, exactly a hundred years ago, the city saw India’s first university for women - SNDT.
While we have come a long way with wide support for girl’s education today, actual outcomes have lagged. We looked at some of the most promising schools and projects that address key issues holding girls back through fresh approaches.
Solving the problem of drop outs in cities - Prerna High School
A school near the banks of the river Gomti in Lucknow is carrying out an incredible experiment in girls’ education. Prerna Girls School is a high school for underprivileged girls, many of whom come from local slums and work as domestic help. To enable these girls to fit education within their circumstances, the school operates in the afternoons. When they arrive, each child is given a snack every day as a nutritional intervention and to increase attendance.
What makes this school’s approach unique is its radical syllabus that, besides the usual subjects, also teaches students to recognize and fight gender bias with tools like critical dialogues, drama, storytelling and music. The school also works to gently alter discriminatory mindsets among parents through such activities. The school intervenes and brings in counselling support in cases of child marriage, without getting into an adversarial relationship with the family. After schooling, Prerna provides vocational training and helps students find employment, further encouraging girls to stay in school.
Urvashi Sahni, founder of Prerna High School, says “Teachers must first understand and respect the circumstances students come from and then work actively to keep the girls in school and build their aspirations. The school must provide long-term and comprehensive support.”
Adapting village schools to overcome rural challenges - Shiksha Karmi Project
Teacher absenteeism is a major obstacle to education in rural areas. In 1987, the state government of Rajasthan started the Shiksha Karmi (education worker) Project to curb drop out rates and bring students back to rural schools.
The project substituted absent professional teachers with a team of two locals. The theory was that a person from the community would have a better understanding of the conditions of local children. The villagers also had a say in the appointments and the volunteers were given intensive training and were subject to periodic reviews. Since the gender of the teacher is a big factor in getting girls to attend schools, female volunteers were recruited despite difficulties.
In addition, the Shiksha Karmis also started Prehar Pathshalas where girls who could not attend regular schools, due to commitments at home, were taught at times convenient for them. According to a report from the National Resource Cell for Decentralized District Planning (NRCDDP), both these initiatives contributed towards increasing retention of girl students. 22,138 girls—around 68% of the students have been able to resume their education because of Prehar Pathshalas. Additionally, to scale the project, 14 Mahila Prashikshan Kendras (Women Training Centres) have been established to train women teachers and increase enrolment of girls in villages.
Breaking stereotypes through sports - Yuwa
Yuwa was founded by Franz Gastler, a social worker, in Jharkhand in 2009. It began as a small scholarship fund for hard-working students at a local government school. Around the same time, a 12-year-old girl asked Franz if he would coach a football team. What started as a basic kick-about has evolved into something significant. More girls began coming to the practices. They began to request daily practices and saved money to buy sports equipment. Eventually the girls in Yuwa began wanting more classes in addition to football, and the Yuwa School was founded in 2015 — a full time, low cost, English-medium all-girls school that is linked to the football program. The football teams provide the necessary social support for girls to stay in school, maintain excellent attendance, and gain the confidence to get ahead.
Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM) education is widely seen as critical for emerging jobs, yet stereotypes and other barriers often discourage girls from choosing these subjects. As a result, there is a widening gender gap in STEM fields. For example, an MHRD report shows that only 8.52% of the girls enrolled in higher education were pursuing bachelor degrees in engineering or technology in 2012-13. This was far below the national average of 13.27%.
Deepti Rao Suchindran, a neuroscientist and her sister, Aditi Prasad, who works in Public Policy, felt that this gap needed to be addressed. They started Indian Girls Code, inspired by initiatives like “Girls Who Code” and “Black Girls Code” in the US. It is a free hands-on coding and robotics education program that is inspiring young girls to be innovators in the field of technology by creating real-world applications. It is currently teaching 25 girls, ages 7 to 12, from the Annai Ashram orphanage in Trichy. While the initiative is small today, it has partnered with Ford Motors and Cisco to provide similar programs for girls. Going by global examples, there is great potential to scale. “Girls who Code” has grown from 20 girls in New York to 10,000 girls across America.
Beyond successful projects and pilots, it’s important to think of interventions for education in a structural and scalable manner. Kiran Bir Sethi’s “Design For Change”, a youth empowerment program in Ahmedabad is a great example. Five years since inception, it now reaches 200,000 students over 30 countries. Students are ingrained with the belief that they can change the world and are encouraged to identify problems in their communities and recommend actionable solutions. Their efforts have ranged from fighting untouchability in a village in Rajasthan to creating awareness among stone mine workers about the hazards of their work.
The DFC program has gained worldwide recognition winning prestigious awards like the Rockefeller Foundation Innovation Award in 2012. But most importantly it has inspired thousands of girls to take an active role in changing society. Similarly, Prerna Girls School is running a program to train teachers from government schools to widen impact. And many girls from the Yuwa program are becoming leaders of positive change—over 20 Yuwa girls have spoken at TEDx and at universities in India and abroad
Making education accessible and enjoyable for girls is what will take girl child education to the next level in India. And while many organisations and programs are slowly bringing about change, there is still a long way to go. Learning about and supporting these organisations is a good way to shape the conversation regarding girls education in India. Join the conversation here.
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