Looking up at me, this is the reply of thirteen-year-old Nikita to my question ‘What do you want to be?’, her eyes fill up with tears and her mouth is slightly smiling. No-one notices this but I nod at her and move the subject on, careful not to draw attention to her reaction.
We are in the middle of our daily Aspire class, which I co-develop and lead with another teacher named Kirsty at Gandhi Shikshan Bhavan School (GSB) in Juhu, Mumbai. Together, we meet each day with twenty teenage girls in the ninth standard, in-between teaching other classes. These sessions consist of discussions and project-based work; we focus on topics such as employability, sustainability, the role of women in society and democracy, activism, and current affairs, as well as skills-based workshops to promote women’s empowerment.
A large proportion of students at GSB are from disadvantaged backgrounds and approximately 20% are ‘first generation learners’ (FGL). This term refers to the students who are the first one in their entire family to go to school and receive an education or whose parents have attended the formal education system only up until the primary level of schooling. These children often face a multitude of academic, psychological, socio-economic and cultural challenges, all of which affect girls most seriously.
Academic support from parents is often limited due to their own lack of education or lack of time to spend with their children as a result of having demanding jobs. In general, it is mothers who interact more with the school system here in Mumbai; mothers who take their small children to school each day and mothers who sit down with their child to study, even if she is unable to provide them with any academic help. It is the mother who is often the sole provider of motivation and valuable support, and it is she who will play a central role in passing on these good habits and skills to her children. Yet, whilst India has seen a steady increase in primary school enrolment — which is evidenced in large class sizes of both boys and girls — many of these female students drop out before they have finished their primary schooling (usually before the age of fourteen), or whilst they are at secondary school.
Uniquely, the school works under the Gandhian philosophy, ensuring that its teachers are agents of social change and inclusive development and that its students are well-rounded and socially-conscious members of the community. This kind of environment creates an equal learning platform for both boys and girls, making sure that they stay in school beyond the consistent eighth standard drop-out period. Most of these learners are typically children of bus drivers, labourers, civic-sanitation workers and housemaids with no educational background. As a result, these students may find themselves ‘on the margins of two cultures’, often having to renegotiate a relationship at school and at home to manage the tension between the two. This is manifested in the number of absences in school; it is still rare that there is full attendance in our class and on a day to day basis, it is difficult not to think about the causes and consequences of this.
I think back to when we recently celebrated India’s Independence Day at GSB. The morning was spent singing patriotic songs together and hoisting the national flag above the trees that surround the school premises. Performances were also given, one of which included a short play made by some younger students. It depicted the scenario of a family not allowing their young daughter to complete her schooling, so that she may leave to marry a man in a nearby village.
‘Please can I go to school? Just for one day?’ the girl argued.
‘But what would you even do there?’ her father replied.
After some talk of her obligation to marry versus the benefits of staying at school, the conclusion of the play was positive; the mother and the father discussed her options with their daughter and agreed for her to complete her education. Afterwards in her speech, the head teacher of the school reflected on this and reminded everyone of their main ethos, echoing the words of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘We cannot succeed as a country if 50% of our population is at home and not being heard.’
There are a number of things that need to and can be done in order to improve this situation, including curriculum development; more involvement of (often uneducated) families in school life in order to help to manage their child’s education; reducing or omitting the cost altogether for the most vulnerable children and compensating families for the loss of labour (a frequent reason why children drop-out). School hours should be more flexible, so children can help at home and still attend classes. In addition, the safety of girls travelling alone should be addressed, particularly in villages. This is a major concern for Indians and at GSB, a female teacher will stay on the school-bus until every child has been dropped off, so that no girl is left alone which can make them more vulnerable to ‘eve-teasing’ or assault.
The Indian woman today faces unique challenges at every step, within her own home and outside of it. Not in all circumstances, but in far too many, an Indian girl with any trace of ambition has a long, hard road ahead of her. I am still unsure as to why Nikita reacted in that way to that question in that class, nor will I ever ask her. But I think of the words of the head teacher on Independence Day and I think of my own beliefs concerning the importance and power of girls’ education. An educated woman acquires the essential skills, information and self-confidence and strength that she needs to be a better parent, worker and citizen. When women and girls are given the opportunity for full participation and a full education (this includes completing their studies from primary through to secondary without changing schools or dropping out entirely), women will gain more control over their future and consequently their whole family, community and country will benefit.
In hindsight, I believe that one reason that Nikita reacted the way she did was perhaps that she felt relief; she felt happy in a moment where in the safety of her peers and in a silent room of listening ears, she was able to bravely reveal her aspirations and admit that she had the hope to achieve them.