I’m currently visiting projects in India, and have just spent an afternoon with young women from the ‘Sikhai Hatiyar’ (Education is the Tool of Empowerment) project in Rural West Bengal. I took part in a meeting with over 100 girls who have recently enrolled in Higher Secondary school. This means that they have graduated from secondary school and will now be studying for two more years – from 16-18.
This is a first for the project, for the young women themselves, their communities, and it is a remarkable achievement. Previously the project was only able to support girls to stay in education up to the age of 16. Thanks to a very generous Karuna support, we have been able to set up this new initiative. Higher education of this kind opens up a world of possibilities for these young women in terms of their life choices, jobs, and perhaps even a university education.
The project is based in a rural area of West Bengal between Baruipur and Diamond Harbour. In this area school drop-out rates are high and child marriage is rife. Girls are pressurized into marriage from as young as 11 or 12, and as a young bride, a girl will be forced into domestic slavery where she is rarely allowed to leave the home other than for tasks such as buying groceries or fetching water.
Girls are also taken out of school early and made to work to supplement the income of households where both parents are usually agricultural day labourers, and work is seasonal, unstable and very poorly paid.
Our partner Nishtha works with the whole community to improve the situation for women and girls. Girls and Mothers join groups where they learn self-confidence and find mutual support. Practical and financial support is given to allow girls to continue their education.
It is hard to overstate the magnitude of what an opportunity like this means for the young women involved in the project. It was remarkable and moving to meet these inspirational and strong young women, and to hear their stories. Many of them told me stories about their difficult backgrounds. Many had lost one or both parents, or were the victims of violence and sexual assault. All of them come from families who live below the poverty line, and all of them have aspirations to transcend these circumstances and to live a better life.
Akashamitra, Programme Manager.