India: Defying All Odds and Pursuing An Education

Saraswati fights to keep her dream of studying alive. Photo: ©2012 Annila Harris/World Vision

Saraswati fights to keep her dream of studying alive.
Photo: ©2012 Annila Harris/World Vision

This month our country of focus is India, where World Vision’s Strong Women, Strong World initiative is focusing on child protection. The following story was contributed by Annila Harris, World Vision.

Fifteen-year-old Saraswati battles poverty, abuse and subjection in a patriarchal system. Her never-give-up spirit along with help from World Vision India has made her dream of an education a reality. Saraswati didn’t start attending World Vision’s educational programs until she was 13, so she’s got a lot of catching up to do, but she’s so excited to be in school. Her dad is angry that she’s turned down two marriage proposals and is continuing classes, but her mom (who was married at 11) says that she is better cared for at the World Vision center than she is at home.

Walking in with confidence, Saraswati takes her place at the World Vision resource center, where World Vision staff conduct courses along with summer classes focusing on recreational activities. Her friends Mohini and Surekha join her triggering a riot of chatter. Saraswati’s sweet smiling face and warm personality masks a gory reality of pain, confinement and subjection. All because she is a girl.

Saraswati shares a one room humble hut with her family of five. Confined to the four walls of her home, Saraswati faced the plight of being a girl in India. She says: “I was not allowed go out of the house. I was told by my family that girls should not make friends or roam around. So I used to quietly sit at home and not go out. I had a great desire to play outside with other children but I did not have the courage to disregard what the elders said. I could not argue with them or bypass what they were saying.”

She belongs to a family that has, generation after generation, sentenced their women to a life of confinement and mistreatment, each time reinforcing male dominance. Sarawati’s mother, Savitri was a victim of an age-old tradition of child labor and child marriage.

“My mother used to work by weaving baskets and we children used to go sell them in the market. I was eight years old when I started working and didn’t know what studies or going to school was all about. I was engaged at the age of five and got married when I was 11,” explains Savitri, Sarawati’s mother.

At 16, Savitri became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy, followed by four more children. Saraswati’s arrival into the world coincided with her father losing his job and him fuelling his passion for drinking.

Without survival being the deciding factor, Sarawati’s mother was compelled to start working. Struggling to find a job as a domestic help, she was unable to provide food for her children, who many nights cried themselves to sleep. At last she got work as a cleaner in a hospital, but the monthly wage of 28 US dollars was not enough to keep a household of six running, so the oldest son was sent off to work, at the age of 10.

Conditioned to think that the sole purpose of a women was to serve, Saraswati and her sister were expected to do all the household chores. Going to school was never a possibility. Like her older sister, Saraswati was destined to replicate her mother’s life.

“Saraswati used to constantly pester me saying, ‘Look mommy those girls are going to school. Why can’t I?’ We didn’t send our daughter out because we could not trust the environment. Outside influences can spoil children. Plus, who would do the household chores when I went to work?” says Savitri, Saraswati’s mother.

Saraswati continued to dream about school and prayed every day for it to become a reality. But her father’s constant struggle with alcohol and its gripping influence on the household, wiped the smile off Saraswati’s face.

Saraswati’s father found no value in putting a girl into school. With a hint of sadness reflecting in her voice, she says, “When I looked at other girls going to school, I longed to join them. Play with them. Eat with them. Visit their homes and relax there. My father told me ‘There is no need for girls to study, just focus on household work that is a girl’s life.’ Managing the husband’s home and serving him was my father’s idea of women being happy. He believed, and still believes, that this is what girls are made for. They should not step outside their home or go to study,” she says.

Three years ago, while conducting a survey, World Vision India staff befriended Saraswati. In the comfort of a protected environment, she shared her story, and World Vision began to make Saraswati’s dream a reality. “The first day I stepped out to come to the center I was petrified. But when I sat in class all my fears went away. I remember they were teaching the Hindi vowel signs that day,” Saraswati says with a broad smile on her face.

World Vision staff were slowly able to convince Saraswati’s mother to send her to the World Vision center. Motivated by envisioning a better life for Saraswati, her mother consented to Saraswati’s education.

“Saraswati’s mother was keen to send her child to school, but her father was very against this move. He verbally abused us and his own family for this decision,” says Rampyari Verma, a World Vision staffer. “I tried giving Saraswati the message of hope. Despite what she was facing, I requested her not to give up; to endure the pain because it was short lived.”

World Vision India promised to journey along with Saraswati through the hard times. Before mainstreaming Saraswati, she was enrolled into a foundational course, imparting the basics of English and Hindi language. Religiously attending each class and staying extra hours was a testament of Saraswati’s zeal for studying.

“Teaching Saraswati was not easy, given her background. She was 13 when she saw letters and alphabets for the first time. She had a lot of catching up to do and her home was not a conducive environment for studying. She was unable to pronounce correctly or retain information, as her brain was not tuned to process an academic subject. So we put her in remedial class, organized for children who are slow to grasp information. I was moved by her determination to study. Whenever she could not understand anything she used to ask me to devise a method that will enable her to learn faster,” says Lela Loharai a World Vision staffer conducting remedial classes.

“The World Vision staff takes care of my daughter more than what is done at home. I am at peace when my daughter steps out because I know she is safe with World Vision staff. I am excited that my daughter is getting good knowledge,” says Savitri, Saraswati’s mother.

Eager to share her experiences of school, Saraswati blurts out, “The first day of school was very nice. There were so many children. I didn’t think I would make friends but now I have friends. I have a uniform too. My parents object to my wearing a dress, so now I wear salwar kameez. It is blue in color. They teach English, math and other subjects but I love to study Hindi. Now, for the first time in my life, I feel if I do well in studies and pass, I will have a good job. I will definitely not do what my mom is doing currently. My attitude towards life has changed because of the World Vision staff. I am positive that if World Vision was not working in our locality, I would have never got the opportunity to study. I would have been married by now.”

There is a lot of pressure from Saraswati’s father to get her married. According to him, his girl is grown up and needs to serve in her husband’s house. Despite it all, Saraswati has boldly said no to two marriage proposals.

“Six years before World Vision entered the community, more than 50 percent of the girls were married before 18. Only 40 percent of the girls went to school. Currently 80 percent of them are enrolled in school, receiving formal education and the cases of early marriage have reduced considerably. Very rarely we find cases here,” says Jayanti Prem, a community development coordinator of World Vision India.

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