When Aarti* (10) and Vidhi* (8) were born, there was a celebration – a rare occurrence in rural Rajasthan, but very common in their economically backward village. This is because Aarti and Vidhi, by virtue of their gender, are eligible to join the prevalent medium of employment in their village – prostitution. A chance at receiving an education can now potentially change their destiny!
The Educate Girls’ Team from Mumbai is at Aarti and Vidhi’s home for a photo-shoot. Just half an hour into the shoot, the villagers get squeamish. They are worried that we’ve come under the guise of an NGO working in their village but actually want to investigate and expose their ‘secret activities’. They start to question Aarti and Vidhi’s father and pressurize him to send us away. A slightly educated member of the village is called, shown our credentials and it takes some cajoling for the local Educate Girls’ team to dispel the villagers’ apprehensions.
In the midst of this tense atmosphere, Aarti and Vidhi narrate their story. They are a family of 8; their parents, two younger sisters and brothers and them. Their parents are illiterate like most of the villagers and finding paid work is scarce. Agriculture is not easily possible in the difficult terrain. Their father finds work in small construction sites in nearby areas if he can. The only true possible source of income for the very poor families is sending their adolescent girls into prostitution. Like most girls here, Aarti and Vidhi were set on a path that led to this profession.
Given the conditions of the village, neither girls nor boys are educated much. One of the villagers candidly said, “When you can see the scorpions in the sand, you will walk away from them. If we educate these children, they will surely protest against these practices. How will we earn our livelihood then?”
In 2014, with Educate Girls’ operations scaling up to include their district, Aarti and Vidhi, and others like them, were made aware of how education could change their destiny. Educate Girls’ Field Coordinator Jitendra and Team Balika (community-volunteer) Satyanarayan have conducted various village meetings since then to get the community to openly discuss their opinions and concerns. They have challenged the prevalent way-of-thinking and keep urging people to educate their children and look for other options of employment. More discussions have also been initiated with the civil bodies of the region to look into the challenges of the village. During one such village meeting, Aarti and Vidhi, amongst others, were identified as out-of-school girls.
Satyanaran spoke to Aarti and Vidhi’s parents and started visiting them regularly to explain the benefits of educating their daughters. He took them to the government school in the village and showed them the way Educate Girls partners with the school to achieve improved school infrastructure and learning outcomes for the children. He explained that primary education was free in government schools and that a world of other employment options would be opened up for their girls if they were educated. They would surely be empowered in every aspect of their life.
However Aarti and Vidhi’s parents resisted the idea of sending their daughters to school. They were afraid of their society’s perception of them if they agreed and the fact that their daughters could be exposed to unsavoury men. They also depended on Aarti and Vidhi to help out with house-hold chores and taking care of their siblings when both parents had to step out to find work. However, neither Jitendra nor Satyanaran gave up.
Team Balika Satyanarayan is a resident of the village and knows first-hand what its problems are. His four sisters, though elder than him, weren’t allowed to study and since his family was one of the economically better ones, the girls were married as children with hefty dowries paid to their in-laws: “I somehow never liked the way my sisters were discriminated against. They were all like second mothers to me and treated me very lovingly. I used to offer to do a lot of the house-hold chores but my mother wouldn’t let me. I have completed my Bachelor of Arts and Education degrees but have always regretted that being so much younger than my sisters, I didn’t have a chance to fight for their education before they were married. This is why paving the way for education in my village, especially for girls, is a cause close to my heart. So when Educate Girls approached me to become a Team Balika, it was surely a ‘Yes’ from me!”
After much persuasion, Aarti and Vidhi’s parents agreed to send their daughters to school. They are still afraid and the girls have to make sure they contribute to house work before and after school. Their neighbours are shocked at their decision. Jitendra says, “It’s like a tug of war – we keep advocating their girls’ education and the villagers keep pushing them to reconsider and not get swayed by our words. We need to win this because when we do, we will positively change the lives of even those who are now against us.”
Aarti and Vidhi’s spirits are unaffected by this cultural and social dilemma for now. They love going to school and have decided that this is what they want. Aarti wants to become a police officer when she grows up. She has seen police officers frequent the village to keep a check on the prostitution racket and knows that people are scared of them: “I don’t want to scare people. I just know that police have the power to ensure that people do the right thing. That’s what I want.”
Aarti and Vidhi are both doing well in school and they love the sessions during which Satyanarayan uses Educate Girls’ Creative Learning and Teaching (CLT) kit for teaching. Aarti is learning to read the time on a clock. She has shown her mother how to read the time as well. Her mother said, “Although I am afraid and I know we need money, I am happy that my girls are getting an opportunity that I didn’t get. Perhaps their lives will be different. Perhaps time will show them a better future than I could ever imagine. This is why I’ve agreed to educate them.”
*Names changed to protect the identity of the minors