For most girls in the slums of Pune, India, the idea that they could become a teacher or a public officer or a computer engineer — or that they could choose when, if and who to marry — is a huge shift in thought. And it’s happening right now in the one-room community center of Holt’s legacy partner BSSK.
At a summer camp in the central India town of Pune, teens and pre-teens from a nearby slum sit cross-legged on the floor in groups of 4 or 5. Each group receives a question written in Marathi on a little slip of paper. The question is to be read aloud and discussed.
“When do you want to marry?” is the question put to one group of girls.
One 12-year-old girl in a collared shirt and jeans says she will marry when her parents want her to and when they find a good boy for her. “When I become a teacher and financially independent,” says a reed-thin 13-year-old with tiny hoop earrings and a long braid down her back. Another girl — 14 and serious — says she doesn’t want to marry at all. Her father is very dominating, she says, and her mother has no say. This girl wants to be an administrative officer in the public service once she finishes school.
Another 12-year-old says she too has no interest in getting married. Her mother works a lot and has no time to rest, she says. When she grows up, she will work hard and give her mother the rest she deserves. This girl plans to become a computer engineer.
The serious thought and consideration these girls give to the idea of marriage is a sign of true progress in this community. For most of these girls, no one at home ever seriously asks them when — much less if or who — they want to marry. They come from families in which girls marry at 15 or 16 to a husband of their parents’ choosing. In most cases, their mothers are not educated and they are the first girls in their families to go to school past the second or third grade. The thought that they could become a teacher or a public officer or a computer engineer — or that they could choose when, if and who to marry — is a huge shift in thought. And it’s happening right here in this one-room community center of our long-standing partner organization Bharatiya Samaj Seva Kendra (BSSK).
“Every child has a unique story,” says Vaishali Vahikar, the director of sponsorship at BSSK who oversees the DEESHA (Development of Education Environment Social Health Awareness) Community Center where today’s summer camp is held. A confident, well-educated woman who wears a traditional kurta top and a bindi on her forehead, Vaishali is a natural leader — her expression at all times the perfect balance of knowing no-nonsense and maternal warmth as she supervises this energetic group of teenagers. These teens are, however, an uncommonly polite and respectful bunch — to both each other and their teachers. Their behavior in many ways reflects the atmosphere at the DEESHA — a bright and inviting space where children are treated with a kindness and respect they don’t always receive at home. “We teach them to feel good about themselves,” says Vaishali. When we visit on a hot summer morning, we enter on tip-toe as the class always begins the day with a meditation exercise. Boys and girls sit cross-legged on colorful floor rugs, listening to soothing music with their eyes closed.
Although every one of these children is in the sponsorship program and come from the impoverished slum communities surrounding the DEESHA, their backgrounds vary. Their stories are unique. They come from different castes. Their families practice different religions. Some of their families migrated to Pune from rural areas in search of work. Some come from single-parent households or they live with relatives. Some of their families are more progressive and have more education. Others would not choose to educate their daughters but for the opportunity to educate their sons as well. (Although BSSK primarily sponsors education for girls, when one child is sponsored, every child in the family receives support for their education.)
“The condition of their families influences their decisions,” Vaishali comments as we sit and listen to the group of girls discuss their futures and marriage plans.
Sejal* — the 13-year-old in yellow who wants to become a teacher — is from a very small village outside of Pune. When her mother died, her father refused to care for Sejal and her two siblings so they moved to Pune to live with their grandmother. They love and miss their mother, and wish to have no contact with their father. In India, a child’s middle name is typically their father’s name. When Sejal and her siblings enrolled in school in Pune, they informed the school that they would not be using their father’s name but rather their mother’s name. “We do not have a father,” they said when asked why. Sejal’s first name means “retaining knowledge through good listening and always speaking well” in Marathi, and as she shares her hopes and dreams, her voice soft but confident, it is clear that she lives up to her name — both the part she chose, and the part she was given.
With support from BSSK and their Holt sponsors, Sejal and her siblings have everything they need to go to school — including two uniforms a year, notebooks and supplies, free camp twice a year, and tuition if their families can’t afford it. Social workers also visit with teachers and administrators to regularly check on each student’s progress.
In India, high school is considered complete by the 10th grade, and 11th and 12th grade are considered junior college. With additional funding from sponsors, BSSK strives to support children through 12th grade — and, whenever possible, through vocational training or graduate studies. “Over the years, our focus has been and continues to be completion of education until class 12,” explains Roxana Kalyanvala, executive director at BSSK. “But our experience tells us that it is hard to leave the child after 12th grade and hence we are helping several children beyond this class as well.”
In Pune, 600-plus children are enrolled in the sponsorship program through BSSK. Some of them are boys, but most are girls — girls who would otherwise drop out of school young to work as domestic servants or in other labor. Even if they don’t work, many would still be pulled from school to learn to take care of their household before marrying at 15 or 16. In one slum community a few blocks from the DEESHA, we meet the mother of a girl in sponsorship who says the only reason she sends her daughter to school is so that her son can also receive educational sponsorship. She plans for her daughter to marry at 16, but Holt social workers are encouraging her to wait until her daughter finishes high school.
Among some families, however, this attitude is changing — particularly in pockets where BSSK and other NGOs have had an influence. “There’s more of a want for education today,” says Roxana. More than 32 years ago, when Roxana first started as a social worker at BSSK, she oversaw sponsorship cases. Now, she says, this generation of sponsored children have grown up and want the same for their children. “Before, it was just about survival,” she says of the families in the slum communities. But as financial conditions have improved — with more jobs and more double-income households — families can focus more on education.
“Twenty years earlier, we had a tough time telling parents to put their girls in school,” echoes Mary Paul, executive director of another of Holt’s legacy partners in India, Vathsalya Charitable Trust (VCT) in Bangalore. “Twenty years down the line, we don’t have to force [families] to put their girl child in school.” Mary Paul says this is primarily true when mothers — women — are educated. “When you educate a girl, you change a generation because women have far more influence on their children than men,” she says. “In India, the father’s influence is minimal. They may be educated, but first-generation (educated) moms will see to it that their kids are educated.”
In both Pune and Bangalore, involving parents — particularly mothers — in the activities of the children is key to the success of the sponsorship program. “Whatever we discuss with the kids, we also discuss with their moms,” Vaishali says as an aside during a group conversation at camp about whether marriage should be compulsory. Once a month, the DEESHA hosts women’s groups with a turn-out of about 60-70 mothers.
Some of the more progressive ideas discussed at the DEESHA are controversial among some families.
“They have gone through a different culture,” she says. “They believe boys should behave a certain way, girls another.”
In fact, very little seems too taboo to address at the DEESHA. Everything from whether marriage should be compulsory to how to report sexual violence is open for discussion among the teenagers at the summer camp as well as the women who attend the mothers’ group.
The summer camp we visit is a co-ed group, which provides an opportunity to discuss the same ideas with boys and girls. Ideas about not just marriage, but about rape, a common and complex problem in India for many reasons, but especially now as more women forego traditional roles to become educated and join the workforce — or, as Mary Paul puts it, as they “come up in society.”
“We need to talk to the little boys — teach them not to rape,” says Mary Paul. “And we need to [teach] parents that girls and boys must be raised in the same way.”
At the DEESHA, the teenagers have open conversations about rape and sexual harassment. They discuss whether it’s ever OK — identifying different circumstances when it might occur — and whether it’s ever the girl’s fault if she is raped. If a boy is younger than 18, is it OK? If a girl is wearing fewer clothes during the summer, is it OK? The kids nod in agreement with the teachers as they explain that it’s never under any circumstance OK, but are reticent to voice an opinion to the group.
In the past two years, India has become more proactive at addressing this insidious problem —passing a constitutional act to protect children against sexual violence. “BSSK is working intensively on sexual education and what to do if they see someone harassing a child — where to go and how to complain,” says Vaishali. “We teach both parents and children how to report it to the court and their social workers.”
Asking questions of the kids — particularly in smaller discussion groups — is strategic on the part of the DEESHA staff. “These activities help the staff understand their way of thinking,” says Vaishali. Their answers provide insight into their backgrounds and where they are coming from, and help the staff develop activities for them.
That one child from a family whose parents are both educated, who believe their daughters should also receive an education, could sit side by side with a child whose mother is illiterate and plans to marry off her daughter at 16 is a true reflection of rapidly evolving modern India. The ideas presented at the DEESHA are wildly progressive for some children and families. But advocating for equality between women and men — whether the families embrace it or not — is central to BSSK’s mission in this community.
The ideas they share are embodied by the staff members who work among these families as well. The girls who attend the summer camp have extraordinary role models — among them two master’s degree-level social workers, a former lawyer and three Montessori teachers. All of them in fact have training in Montessori education. All of them are women.
A few of the teachers are also an extraordinary example of the multi-generational impact of sponsorship. Usha grew up the daughter of a single mother, and Holt sponsors supported Usha and her two sisters for six years in the early 1980s. Her mother found work in BSSK’s childcare center, and she never thought of sending her daughters to school until BSSK and Holt offered to support them. Usha’s sister is now a senior nurse at BSSK, while Usha completed the 12th grade and went on to become first a professional tailor and now a Montessori teacher. She also manages 76 sponsorship cases — working directly with each of the children and families to ensure their success.
Usha speaks only Marathi, so Vaishali translates for her. “She is very firm in her mind that she will only work with BSSK,” Vaishali says as Usha stands beside her, beaming. “She feels very safe here and feels BSSK has given her a lot since she was small.”
Mahananda is another former beneficiary of BSSK’s sponsorship program. A younger woman in a beautiful pale pink sari, Mahananda also grew up the daughter of a single mother. Holt sponsors supported her from the 4th through the 10thgrade. After her mother passed away, Mahananda’s relatives married her to a boy they felt was a suitable match for her, but as with many arranged marriages, the relationship was not an immediate success. Mahananda returned to BSSK for help and guidance. “She said that BSSK had always been such a support to her,” Vaishali translates. The couple received counseling through BSSK, and today Mahananda says her relationship with her husband is much stronger.
Before coming to work as a Montessori teacher with BSSK, Mahananda worked for an NGO that advocated for access to clean water and public toilets in the slum communities. Today, she walks among the rows of students, assisting them with their assignments and serving as a glowing example of how sponsorship can shape the life of a child from the slums.
“She feels she’s not an orphan because she has the support of BSSK,” Vaishali says of Mahananda, who can’t speak English, but has made sure that her children learn English in school.
As the DEESHA opened in 1991, Mahananda also attended summer camps when she was younger.
“She has knowledge from both sides,” says Vaishali.
While social health and education are the primary goals of the DEESHA, summer camp wouldn’t truly be a summer camp without some fun and games. As the day’s activities wind down, the teens put on a show for each other and their visitors. With ponytails flying, and faces beaming, two girls perform a perfectly choreographed Bollywood dance they taught themselves at home. A boy sings a beautiful, haunting song in Marathi. Then two more teens — a boy and girl — kick and spin to the upbeat rhythm of another Bollywood number.
Although they face many challenges at home — and have reached an age where they can have adult conversations and begin to seriously consider their futures — they are in many ways still just kids. And this is summer. And their spirits are so full of joy and hope, it’s contagious.
Robin Munro | Managing Editor