In India, millions of girls face an uphill struggle when it comes to getting an education. From financial constraints to unsupportive communities to rigid and suffocating gender roles and even demotivating classrooms, there are a number of hurdles that girls have to overcome.

Fighting this status quo and keeping their ambitions alive are some incredible girls who are not only making their own future brighter but serving to inspire others facing similar circumstances.

Chasing dreams in the red light district

Shweta Katti’s is an inspiring story of rising above circumstances. She was born and raised in Kamathipura – Asia’s second largest red light district. Shweta’s mother, a factory worker, always encouraged her to study. Her parents saw education as a way out of poverty and a means of empowerment.

School, however, was not kind to Shweta. She was bullied for being dark skinned and for coming from Kamathipura. Her teachers barely took classes, and when they did, they spared no attempt to humiliate the students. Shweta recalls how girls from Kamathipura were told by their teachers “Your mother is a whore and you will be a whore too”. Instead of learning and feeling empowered at school, she started to suffer from low self-esteem and developed a fear of going to school. Throughout all of this, the sex workers in Kamathipura were extremely supportive of girls who wanted to study and often pushed her to focus when she had lost interest. One sex worker who was close to Shweta told her “You have to study, you have to get out of here!” Finally, in class XII, through a women’s collective called Apne Aap, she heard of Kranti, an organisation working to empower girls from red-light areas.

Shweta Katti

Joining Kranti gave Shweta a new lease of life. The open environment encouraged her personal growth and her personality blossomed. She started to believe in herself and began to harbour ambitions of going abroad to study. Through Kranti’s help, she secured admission and scholarships to go to New York’s prestigious Bard College.

Shweta is currently doing a semester at Watson’s University, an incubator for social entrepreneurship. Her project is to create a community space for an underprivileged community where members meet, share and build a better life together. She plans to implement these learnings back in India.

Beating circumstances to pass India’s toughest exam

In financially strapped families in India, boys often get precedence over girls for education. Things were no different for Pooja Wagh who grew up in the Sangamwadi slum in Pune. Coming from a family of five sisters and two brothers, Pooja faced great resistance in obtaining an education. Her father did not believe in educating his daughters since the women of the family were traditionally married off young. Pooja’s four elder sisters had been married off before they completed schooling and it may have been the same for Pooja too, but for an unlikely intervention. While in school, Pooja joined the Akanksha Foundation and the volunteers of the foundation encouraged her to complete her education despite the resistance from her father. Pooja continued studying hard and when she passed her class X examination with distinction, her father finally recognised that she could excel in academics.

Pooja Wagh

However, though her father’s change of heart was momentous, it was not the end of her struggles. Her father believed in her now, but was unable to afford her higher education. So Pooja started working part time and completed her Bachelor and Masters degrees in Commerce through with her own earnings. A volunteer from Akanksha then suggested she attempt the Chartered Accountancy (CA) exams—an exam so notoriously difficult just 4.76% of the students passed it in 2016. Pooja studied for the exam while working at a job and volunteering with Akanksha, and passed in her first attempt. She now has multiple job offers and is ready for the next phase of her life. Her commitment has had a chain reaction. She says that after seeing her success, her extended family has started educating their daughters.

From a nomadic tribe to a youth leader in Mumbai

Community practices and beliefs often create formidable barriers to education. Reshma Shirke belongs to the Vaidu community, a nomadic tribe traditionally associated with collecting medicinal herbs. The tribe migrated from Andhra to Mumbai. It is governed by a Khap panchayat that enforces strict rules, sometimes also issuing harsh punishments like fines and restrictions on the use of community resources for transgressions. Traditionally, the panchayat does not encourage education among girls since it is believed to hamper their chance of finding suitable husbands.

Reshma’s mother is a manipotwali who travels around the city selling small items like combs, make-up and trinkets. Her father is an employee in the housekeeping department of a company. In the face of several challenges, Reshma managed to complete her schooling with the help of NGOs and Samaritans who worked with her community, providing monetary support when her parents fell short. However, after schooling her education came to a halt, her parents were unable to financially support her and the panchayat interfered heavily, putting pressure on her to not study further.

Reshma on the far right, in a yellow saree, holds a copy of her report on manipotwalis.

Reshma joined a youth fellowship program run by PUKAR, an independent research collective that works on the radical idea that the primary tool for alternative learning should be community driven research. Some of their work has even influenced government decisions on social issues over the years. Reshma’s research experience with PUKAR helped her understand the multiple benefits of a good education and inspired her to complete her higher studies. She began to seek out colleges and scholarships. Without telling her parents, she took admission into Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work. When she finally confessed to them, after a week of secretly attending college, they were furious. But her obstinacy and desire to make something of herself finally won them over. Reshma, now in her third year of college, is also an active youth leader in PUKAR. She wants to work for an NGO after graduation and perhaps, some day start one of her own.

A second chance after dropping out

Preeti Sawanth from Solapur dropped out of school in fourth grade. As was common practice in her community, she was married off at 15 years of age and had children soon after. When her husband passed away five years after they married, she was forced by her in-laws to move back to her maternal home. Her situation remained grim as her father was an alcoholic and her brother unsupportive.

Preeti Sawanth

However, for Preeti, things changed when she met the team of Pratham Open School of Education (POSE), a program that aims to re-integrate girls who have dropped out, back into the education system. The team convinced Preeti that an education could benefit her and she signed up for the program despite strong opposition from her family. Today, Preeti is completing her education, seeing it as a way to empower herself and her children. She, along with over 4500+ students in the Second Chance Program, aim to complete her class XII examinations, get a Bachelor’s degree and create a better life for herself.

Reshma, Pooja, Shweta and Preeti’s stories show us the struggle and lack of support faced by urban poor and rural girls to go through school. Across income classes, women then face the next major struggle – entering the workforce. Only 33% of India’s women are part of the labour force – well below the global average of 50%. Among the young women from professional backgrounds we spoke to, almost all experienced this hurdle. Even in upper middle class families, these examples are aplenty. Sonia (name changed), the only female post graduate of her generation in her family, went against her family’s wishes to work so that she could fund her own MBA. Similarly, Romita moved out of her parents’ home to work and sustain herself when her brother’s education took precedence over her own.

Today in India, girls are topping all the toughest exams from civil services to the chartered accountancy exam. This is despite the fact that completing schooling and college education remains a distant dream for a majority. According to a survey, only 14 in every 100 girls in our cities reach Class XII. In rural India, the figure is even worse with 1 in 100 girls reaching Class XII. But many girls are refusing to let this status quo prevail or hold them back. These stories are not mere acts of rebellion but emblematic of girls overcoming the biggest systemic barriers they face at each transition – from primary school to high school, from high school to college and professional degrees, or in re-joining education if life, marriage or family problems intervene.

Further, what stands out starkly is the importance of role models or external support, even if it is as simple as encouragement to take an examination as in the case of Pooja. Each of us can be that source of hope for the struggling girls around us. Accepting this reality and supporting organisations doing impactful work in the field of girls’ education is of extreme importance and can add huge value to society. Join the conversation.