Under the Right to Education (RTE) Act, passed in 2009, a free and compulsory education is guaranteed for all children aged between six and fourteen. The most recent figures for primary school enrolment in India stand at a seemingly impressive 98 per cent.
But going to school is a very different thing from receiving a quality education. Those monitoring progress on the sustainable development goal of achieving universal primary education have observed that Indian schooling, albeit ubiquitous, is simply not to standards.
At government schools, pupils face numerous challenges. Overcrowded classrooms, absent teachers, lack of toilets and unsanitary conditions are common complaints, and can eventually lead to parents deciding that the education system is simply not worth it. Moreover, given the economic conditions of many parents and the need for someone to help out around the house, there is not enough value placed on a girl’s education. Whilst girls attend primary school in roughly equal numbers to boys, the gap widens as they get older and more are forced to drop out to help with work at home or to get married.
One such story is that of Geeta, who came to Project WHY in 2008. She was studying at the time in Class 5 at the local government school. Her family is from Bihar and very poor. They came to Delhi looking for a better life and live on rent in Khader. Thankfully, her parents were quickly put in touch with us and enrolled Geeta, her sister, and her two brothers into our primary programme.
After a year of her studying at Project WHY, Geeta’s father became very sick and the doctor recommended surgery. He was the sole earner of the family but, with little employment protection law in India, he was deemed unfit to work and lost his job. The family soon found themselves unable to pay the rent or buy groceries. During one of our classes, Geeta shared her family’s situation with her resource person, who came to realise that the family were on the verge of eviction. It was decided that Project WHY would assist by raising money amongst the staff to temporarily pay her rent, in order to avoid her family living on the streets that month.
Geeta’s father, still recovering, was incredibly appreciative, and came to Project WHY personally to thank all of the teachers. We found ourselves touched by their situation and decided that a permanent solution was required. Through our community connections, we were able to find a cleaning job for Geeta’s mother in order that the family could make ends meet. Our staff, who had grown attached to the struggling family, continued to check on them every week. We encouraged them, in spite of their difficulties at home, to allow Geeta and her siblings to continue studying, which they agreed to do.
As Geeta’s father began to recover, a vacancy arose at the Project WHY Khader Centre for a security guard. As a sincere and upstanding member of the community, we offered this job to him and the family’s economic condition slowly started to improve.
Geeta, with uninterrupted education and support, secured 85% in her Class 10 exam in spite of her family’s difficulties. She was admitted for her desired science classes in Class 11, but at this point her parents went through an acrimonious divorce. With neither parent willing to pay the tuition fees, Project WHY again stepped in to fund these studies. We provided counselling to the parents and tried to maintain a healthy environment for Geeta.
Now in Class 12 and preparing to go to university, Geeta is appreciative of everything that Project WHY has done for her, saying, “if it were not for Project WHY, nobody would have helped us and our condition would have become worse”. She looks after her parents, who continue to work, and manages the household budget for herself and her siblings. She says that she will always be grateful to our staff and that “my studies have not suffered and through Project WHY’s guidance I hope to fulfil my dreams and become a doctor.”
Born to a poor family in Bihar, Gyanti Devi never had the opportunity to learn as a child. Soon after her marriage, her husband, who is severely handicapped, required treatment. This meant moving her life and her two children to Delhi in 2006, where they lived on rent in the village of Madanpur Khader. The area houses mostly migrant families and has a high dropout rate from government schools as well as issues of safety and nutrition.
Gyanti Devi’s case was brought to our attention by a friend of the Project, Sunita, at the beginning of 2014. With her husband unable to work due to his handicaps, Gyanti Devi needed income for her family but, with no skill whatsoever, was unable to find a job.
At Project WHY, we felt that our sewing or beautician classes could give Gyanti Devi the opportunity to start a career. However, we soon realised that, being entirely illiterate, she would need more than just vocational skills. Dharmender, the manager of our Khader centre, proposed that she spend the mornings learning to stitch with the vocational group, but also attend literacy lessons with the children for 40 minutes in the afternoon. She agreed to this and became one of our most motivated and diligent students, slowly building up her literacy skills with the children whilst also finding solace in her knitting.
Now, Gyanti Devi is a proud graduate of the Project WHY system and able to read, write and sew with ease. She has started a small business within her village stitching other people’s clothes, with which she is able to provide income to her family. She is also able to read the local newspaper and understand what is going on in the world. She points to an increased sense of freedom and opportunity with the skills that she now has. Previously afraid to take the bus alone, she notes that “I can now make my household budget and also can read the bus signboard.”
Armed with a new sense of financial responsibility, Gyanti Devi has spent the last three years building a new house for the family. She would get up early in the morning and take the interstate bus from Delhi to Palwal (Haryana) by herself, returning late at night. There, she would bargain and purchase the construction materials required. She kept detailed records of all labour payments in a notebook and is proud of her achievements. “I have successfully built my home for my family. So, I can say today that what every man can do, I can also do”.
Project WHY believes that every person should be able to change his or her life, and it provided the support for Gyanti Devi to do this and achieve her dream. She has created a better future for her children and she hopes that the skills she has learnt will allow her family to prosper for generations.
When Babli first came to Project WHY in 2004, she was a bright-eyed, feisty girl; what some Indians would call Bindaas, meaning carefree and confident. She loved books and seemed to always have a smile. It took Project WHY’s resource persons some time to realize that every breath she drew was an effort. Babli had a hole in her heart from birth and needed corrective surgery. Her family was unable to come up with the required funds. They had simply accepted that she would not live long.
In India, little girls are sometimes considered dispensable, their hearts not worth mending. The Census of India 2011 demonstrates a decrease in the population ratio of female children (age group 0-6 years) of India compared to 2001. For every 1000 male children, there were now 914 female children, a drop from 945 – so where are our girls? Investigations show that female infants experienced a significantly higher mortality rate than male infants in all major states.
Thanks to our wonderful friends, Project WHY was able to raise the funds for Babli by 2005 and the operation was performed successfully. It was scary and painful for this innocent little girl, but Babli’s bindaas spirit saw her through it all.
After her recovery, Babli was expected back in school but, to everyone’s shock, it emerged that she would not be able to continue her education. Her mother, being the sole earning member of the family, didn’t have time to take Babli to school. She also needed her to take care of her younger sister. The father was busy playing cards, and it eventually fell to Babli to manage the father’s work cart that sold tobacco and biscuits.
One step forward and two steps back. The Project WHY resource persons soon found Babli sitting on the cart selling chewing tobacco, cigarettes and biscuits instead of being in school, and her little sister standing in the background. She told them about how her name had been struck off from the rolls of the school and why she was working. But Babli’s words, spoken when she had trouble breathing, still resonated: “I want to be a police,” she had said, without hesitation, when asked about her dreams.
Project WHY found the situation unacceptable, and took steps to change it. After a meeting with her parents and a visit to the nearby government school, Babli was back in school.
Today, thanks to a kind sponsor, Babli studies in Class 9 at English Medium Boarding School in New Delhi, where she often tops her class. True, she won’t become a ‘police’ as the aftermath of her surgery resulted in scoliosis, but she will shine. Her education, which had fallen into peril this year because of a major donor backing out, will continue thanks to another kindhearted donor who has stepped in to fill the gap. This is Project WHY’s attempt to prove that given equal opportunities, children from the slum can do as well as those from the privileged classes.
Whilst literacy is essential to breaking social barriers, the problems faced by Muslim women in India extend beyond this. A quality, broad education is required to combat the issues of poverty and political marginalization faced by these girls, and it is essential that parents encourage this. It has been observed that after the first few years of the primary education afforded to the Muslim girl, one of two things usually happens. Either the girl is plucked out of formal education by the time she reaches puberty and for all practical purposes lapses into virtual illiteracy, or she continues in school but does climb up the education ladder due to virtual exclusion.
Shehnaz’s story shows how a young girl came looking for that quality support in her pursuit of an education and she found it at Project WHY.
Shehnaz lived in Bihar with her two sisters, her brother and their parents. Unfortunately, when Shehnaz was just two years old, her mother passed away. Her father soon remarried and got a job in a factory in Okhla, not far from where the family lived. Shehnaz was therefore stuck at home with her stepmother, who was abusive, unpleasant and wholly unsupportive.
Shehnaz was keen to attend a government school but, by 2015, she was well behind on the syllabus. Her father did not believe in education for women and refused to pay for any kind of tuition. Rinka, a friend of Shehnaz, told her about Project WHY, which she had been attending since 2013, and Shehnaz was immediately keen on the idea. She approached us on her own, as her father was too busy to help her, and explained that she had missed out on a school career and wanted to catch up. We were happy to take her on, encourage her, and prepare her to return to school.
Through her own determination, Shehnaz has now taken admission to the local government school and continues to attend Project WHY. Her stepmother was not happy with these decisions, but simply sees it as an inconvenience. With no help or support, Shehnaz walks two kilometers to and from school every morning. She spends the evenings doing chores, which she says keeps her father happy. This way, she is able to avoid being taken out of school and forced into marriage.
“I feel comfortable and happy at the Project WHY, this is the only place where I can be myself and express my feelings,” says Shehnaz. Her dream is to complete her studies and become a teacher like the Project WHY resource persons who have helped change her life. She wants to go on to help change the lives of similar children in her community. Every day is a struggle for Shehnaz, but she is slowly catching up with the other children. With her appetite for knowledge, we are convinced that she will be successful.
Indian society continues to treat disability with indifference, pity or revulsion. Low literacy, school enrolment and employment rates are making mentally disabled people among the most excluded in Indian society. These people are deterred from taking an active part in most families or even communities. Moreover, there is a stigma attached to children with disabilities, especially in rural India, and often even loving parents can do nothing to help their disabled child because they themselves are not aware of the disease or how to take care of the child.
The story of Muna therefore begins in 2005, when he first arrived at Project WHY. It was clear that he had never been adequately looked after. Upon further investigation, it was revealed that, whilst his parents cared about him dearly, they simply did not understand his intellectual impairments. Muna’s parents did not have the time nor the resources to give him due attention, as they had to care for his other four siblings.
Interacting with Muna, Project WHY found that he had little concept of personal hygiene. He would regularly soil himself and had never been taught to have a shower/bath. He had no understanding of social interaction and rules of engagement. This was demonstrated in 2014 when Muna left a shop without realising he needed to pay for his juice and was severely beaten by the shopkeeper.
Having grown up in the industrial neighbourhood of Okhla, Muna would spend his days begging outside temples, occasionally stealing when money was unavailable. Residents of the neighbourhood would befriend him simply to bully and take advantage of his simple mind. Without the ability to communicate clearly, he was reduced to performing illegal errands around the community such as collecting and selling alcohol for under-aged children.
Project WHY began by teaching Muna the basic concepts of hygiene and to be self-reliant. He was taught to use a lavatory, to dress himself and to shower regularly. From there, we were able to build his confidence through speech therapy classes and develop his basic social interaction skills. Project WHY also initiated the process of educating Muna’s parents, who now understand his disability and the kind of care that he requires. They acknowledge his kind heart and sense of compassion even if he cannot communicate this in the same way as other children.
Today, at the age of 19 years, Muna is one of the stars of Project WHY’s special needs class. He is the first to welcome and befriend any new volunteers, including foreign students who do not speak the Indian language. He is very fond of activities such as art, ball games and dancing and, in spite of his difficult childhood, he shows an overall passion for life.
Muslim women are among the most educationally disenfranchised, economically vulnerable, and politically marginalized group in India. Their poor socio-economic status reflects a lack of social opportunity that, though not a feature exclusive to Muslim women, is exacerbated by their marginal status within an overall context for most Indian women.
Muslim women in India have a low literacy rate compared to the Hindu women. About 59 per cent of Muslim women have never attended school. A relatively low male education amongst the Muslims in rural India creates a pressure to impose ceilings on girls’ education, so as not to render them “unmarriageable”. In addition, the low age of marriage is a major inhibiting factor, which reduces women’s autonomy and agency in the marital home and creates conditions of patriarchal subservience that get perpetuated through life. This thereby reduces a woman’s self-worth.
This point is well illustrated by the story of Sehroonisha, a teacher in the special needs section of Project WHY, Govindpuri. Sehroonisha, has always been interested in education. From a very young age she would love going to school. Her dream was to pursue higher education and to have a good stable profession. However, her father did not share this vision and was against her pursuing higher studies as he thought it was a waste to spend money educating girls.
Before her marriage, Sehroonisha lived near Connaught place with her parents, two sisters and three brothers. In spite of her father’s attitude, her mother was supportive of her and would work in people’s homes doing dishes in order to contribute to her education. Sehroonisha eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2009.
Upon graduation in 2009, Sehroonisha’s father got her married at the age of 20 years to a man who had only been educated until Class 3. “I had to accept my father’s decision at the time” rues Sehroonisha. She held out hope that, through marriage, she could improve her life and explain her interests to her husband. However, her husband did not share the same passion for education and she found that his thinking was on similar lines to her father’s – that is, education is a waste for women.
Sehroonisha had a daughter and a son through the marriage, and soon realised she was the sole provider for them. In spite of her difficulties, she wanted to do something different in her life and stand on her own two feet. She came to know about Project WHY as we had put up a requirement for teachers; it seemed like the perfect platform to change her life. Today she emphasises the impact that the Project has had on her life, saying “Project WHY gave me an opportunity to teach and slowly I was able to rebuild my confidence and take my own decisions with their support.”
With the conducive environment of Project WHY, Sehroonisha has been able to articulate and define her dreams. She acknowledges “All my problems are yet not solved but Project WHY has taught me how to address them with my own abilities”. Today, Sehroonisha enjoys her role as a teacher at the special section of Project WHY, Govindpuri. She has been with us since 2015 and has now taken on the responsibility of looking after the children’s daily activities.