JAISALMER, INDIA—Once a year, the history lecturer Vijay Kumar Ballani and his colleagues go door-to-door in this rural village, imploring parents to send their children to a cinderblock complex that lacks classroom space, bathrooms, and desks. He gives the same stock speech.
“Education is free, lunch is free, books are free, sanitary napkins are free,’’ Ballani tells parents, urging them to visit this government-run school on the edge of the Thar Desert, where, on a warm day late last spring, 12 teachers were overseeing the education of 260 students from first grade through high school. “Your kids will have a better life if they are educated. No one will cheat you.”
Ballani, known as “Mr. Desert’’ for his knowledge of this area, also gives tours of the golden forts and palaces of Rajasthan when he isn’t teaching or pushing villagers to keep children in school. Not surprisingly, he has better luck with boys; girls are too often needed by their families to toil in fields or care for younger children, especially in rural areas.
Now change, while slow, is coming to this country that has long left females behind, particularly here in Rajasthan, where only 52.66 percent are literate and some 350,000 are not in school, according to Educate Girls, a nonprofit aimed at getting more rural girls into classrooms. Less than half of them finish 10th grade in this pocket of northwestern India.
Here and elsewhere in this rapidly growing country, girls are increasingly the focus of new initiatives aimed at keeping them in school. All face obstacles.
The school where Ballani teaches has few amenities. There’s no playground, gym, or running water, and very little technology. And despite India’s push to guarantee a good education to all children between the ages of 6 and 14 under the country’s Right to Education Act of 2009, most students will not finish school.
“They are too poor—their parents want them to work,’’ Ballani said, while showing a visitor in and out of dusty classrooms at his school, GSSS Damodora, where students dressed in powder-blue uniforms sat on the floor awaiting instruction.
About 65 percent of India’s students attend similar government schools, many with dismal outcomes. Just under three-quarters of students in rural India can’t subtract two-digit numbers by grade three, and only half of grade five students can read at a second-grade level, according to a recent World Bank report. The slow pace of improvement in India’s schools some 70 years after the country gained independence from Britain remains a source of frustration, but has given way in recent years to a range of public and private initiatives aimed at boosting attendance, literacy, and the number of girls who attend school.
Still, increasing numbers of families are opting out of government schools in favor of low-cost private education options, while visionary educators are reimagining new solutions, especially for girls. In the capital city of Uttar Pradesh, one school is changing lives in an area where more than 599 million people live below the poverty line and nearly 10 percent of girls are out of school. In rural Rajasthan, construction will soon be underway for a new all-girls school that will showcase local goods and heritage handiwork in this former medieval-trading center, while combining education and economic development for local women.
Just a few miles away from where Ballani teaches, Michael Daube is raising money for the new girls’ school and economic center in Jaisalmer. The charismatic American artist and founder of a New York-based non profit recently broke ground for the Rani Ratnavati Girls School, named for a royal family member credited with saving the Jaisalmer Fort.
“Girls’ education is very low on the list of priorities in India, and rural Rajasthan fares near the bottom,’’ said Daube, who heads an organization known as CITTA, which builds and supports development of schools and hospitals in India.
On an early spring day, Daube, dressed in flowing white, described his vision for a cooperative where 400 girls will study and work alongside their mothers and grandmothers, next to a community center that showcases the intricate hand-sewn rugs, scarves, and saris for which the region is known. Local musicians played while the royal family of Jaisalmer looked out at the barren former Indian heritage site, next to government land Daube hopes to acquire. “A small project can have a global impact,’’ Daube said.
The Manhattan architect Diane Kellogg is designing the complex, which will include an exhibition hall for female artists to display and sell their products. Girls will attend classes while local women weave and embroider their delicate handicrafts. Daube says he has drawn financial support from brands such as Kate Spade, Barneys, and J. Crew, which have pledged to showcase projects from the women’s center as a way of keeping their faded heritage alive. Patchwork artist Santosh Rathi says he’ll work alongside them.
“I will provide the old embroidered pieces so people know they existed,’’ Rathi said after the groundbreaking ceremony, pointing to quilts specially crafted to be among goods a bride’s family traditionally gives to a bridegroom’s family as part of a dowry. “It will help keep these traditions alive and make them [the women] economically powerful.’’
CITTA has experience building both a hospital and a school in Juanga, a village in India, which now has 360 students from kindergarten through 10th grade. The school goes beyond educating children: It also teaches villagers hands-on skills like nutrition, money management, and animal husbandry. The royal family of Jaisalmer is helping with some costs; Daube and CITTA are holding fundraisers for the more than $300,000 needed to build the Rani Ratnavati school and hope it will become self-sustaining within five years.
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A privately funded all-girls high school is also reporting great success in northern India. In 2003, the Prerna Girls School began providing a low-cost option that has served over 5,000 girls from impoverished families. In her new book,Reaching for the Sky, Empowering Girls Through Education, the author and Brookings fellow Urvashi Sahni weaves in stories of many of the girls, including graduate Aarti Singh, now 25 with a master’s degree and dreams of becoming a professor.
When she first heard about Prerna, which means inspiration in English, Singh had one question: “Do they beat you?’’ That abuse had been part of her experience at a local village school, where teachers showed up sporadically. Singh never learned to take an exam and fell way behind. She is the eldest of five girls; her mother married at 16 and is illiterate. Her father drank and beat her mother and siblings so regularly that Singh’s mother once threatened to poison all her children and herself to end their misery.
Although she liked studying, Singh was discouraged from attending because it wasn’t considered safe. When her family moved to Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, they stayed in an abandoned room and moved to a local hospital at night, where they would search for empty beds. Everything changed when Singh got to Prerna. “I felt like I belonged … you can go to your teacher and talk to them about your personal problems. Discussing our lives was part of being in school,” she recounts in Reaching for the Sky.
Sahni, who also works closely with government schools on an advisory council, is often asked her opinion on improving education for girls in India. She’s convinced that having schools recognize the trauma and poverty inherent in their lives is a start, particularly in a country stratified by gender, religion, and a caste system that still permeates daily life.
“To change mindsets, you have to start at school,’’ Sahni said. “It’s not just about reading and writing and counting. It’s about developing a social and political consciousness. You want them to have a good life.”
With over 1.3 billion people, India is second only to China in population and will account for 25 percent of the world’s labor pool by 2030. Ashish Dhawan, a former investment manager who started the Central Square Foundation to boost education in India, has repeatedly insisted his country act “with a sense of urgency,’’ if it wants to become an economic superpower, and improve both the quality of its schools and teaching force.
Aashna Shroff, a 22-year-old Stanford graduate, feels that urgency. She grew up in Mumbai and was one of only two girls taking computer classes at her private high school, Chirec International. Her older sister, who studied computer science at MIT, sent her lectures and coding lessons. When Shroff arrived at Stanford, she found herself overwhelmed by opportunities she never had in India, and immediately wondered how she could help girls left behind in her country.
At government schools she visited back home, Shroff found “some might never have even seen a computer.’’ So she began working with other Stanford students and faculty to form a nonprofit Girls Code Camp, which aims to teach computer science to middle and high-school girls in India. The camps have already served about 800 girls; Aashna is now studying at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and hopes to develop low-cost education tools for countries like India.
“There are so many barriers for women in India when it comes to education,’’ Shroff said. “They get their periods and stay home for a week and fall behind. Or their parents have another child and they stop going to school and start babysitting the younger ones and become the mother of the household.’’
Shroff has little faith in the country’s government schools, and is skeptical that private partnerships are a viable solution, noting that financial reimbursements often aren't timely or substantial enough and put “undue pressure on private entities to pool their resources in raising money rather than ensuring quality of education.”
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Sahni, the author, also expressed skepticism about private takeovers during a talk she gave about her book before a packed crowd in Manhattan in October; she believes they have failed to deliver and lost the faith of communities.
“The private schools are not necessarily better,’’ Sahni said. “I don’t know that just becoming private will make anything different.”
Sahni is deeply involved in efforts to improve government schools in Rajasthan and elsewhere, and hopeful that improvements will be coming and is already seeing a shift. “I would definitely not give up on public schools,’’ she said.
Back at GSSS Damodora, the lecturer Ballani is more concerned about classroom space and equipment. He’s also hoping the school will get more qualified teachers, which are desperately needed throughout the country. India will need some 3 million new primary-school teachers by 2030 and over eight million secondary, according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates.
“If we get more teachers and make a joint effort with parents and concentrate on the work of students, we can get much better results,’’ Ballani said, before the conversation turned back to a list of everything the school needs: a projector, furniture, a library, books, and clothing for colder weather.
He did get some good news on that front recently: a new donation he’s especially excited about. “We are going to have fresh drinking water,’’ Ballani said.