Part of my work, as a member of the program management team, requires that I visit Southern India on a regular basis. I was given the responsibility of supporting this region, though, due to some administrative necessities, I hadn’t had the chance of visiting the field. It was time to make the trek and understand the intricacies of ‘my’ programs and it was a trip that would encompass almost 3 weeks of field visits. Slightly before this big trip, I had an assignment to visit Solapur and photograph the Second Chance Program for British Gas. What I saw was thoroughly impressive. Perhaps I had imagined it as so but it was very energizing to see some of the older women who had been out of school for decades, returning to complete their 10th class board exam. One lady in the group said that she enjoyed studying with her daughter as they were both set to take the same exam that summer. Of course – what was important was not just the second chance that was given to these women but also the fact that they were changing the perception and communicating the importance of girl child education – something that would have far reaching effects beyond the confines of those classrooms and the personal lives of these women. As the saying goes, educate a girl and you educate a generation…
My trip to the South started off in Hyderabad. I was told that I must see and understand the Urdu program, run by a lady called Parveen Sayed – who had started off as a pre-school teacher during the early days of Pratham and now runs Pratham’s only international programs – with learning camps in both India and Pakistan. Parveen and her team received me very warmly. The team, one could easily see, was like a tightly knit family – people that believed very strongly in their work – which was clearly reflected in the way they interacted with one another as well as with the students. As I spoke to each of them, it became clear tha Parveen’s story echoed in the stories of the people that worked her. Each person had been promoted and given more responsibilities and with it – a mentor that stood by and guided them. The same could be said of the students in the Second Chance program. While it is obviously important to have competent teachers, I thought it was just as important for them to interact with a figure such as Parveen. Through Parveen’s story, they felt that there was living presence of all the promise that belief and effort had for them. They sat with her in great comfort and respect and asked about her trip to Delhi and the Presidential Palace. Parveen recounted what an honour it was to be there but proceeded to tell the girls that they too could do great things if they set their mind to it.
Our next visit was to an Urdu medium school, where I observed the class engage in learning games and activities designed to help children reach higher levels of competencies in their reading. Some girls (it was an all-girls school) wrote stories and we listened to these stories, which were very well written and pertained to important issues that were afflicting the city at the time (there were outbreaks of Dengue Fever so many girls wrote about the need for safety precaution). The class came to an end and after the usual process of packing up, the group of girls engaged in a series of group activities and singing (something I wish my own class in primary school engaged in).
I had assumed that with the end of school, this was indeed the conclusion of my visit and thanked Parveen for her time and her work. ‘There is one more centre’, she said, ‘In the community’. I agreed to see the program but to be honest, I had seen urban programs in Mumbai and Pune and was not prepared for what time would reveal to me.
On account of working so closely with the Mumbai urban team, I assumed that I knew the model quite well. It was rather common of the urban programs to have community spaces in people’s houses and my assumption was later confirmed by our visiting a home in the outskirts of Hyderabad where an urdu learning camp was presently underway. We sat through this camp – taught and coordinated by a girl called Sherine. She was very warm to the guests and the urdu team quickly engaged with the children or like me – sat to observe the proceedings. I learned my first first word in Urdu – Alif. I decided to be more useful than a mere observer since I could not really contribute towards the Urdu learning efforts (unless a child was particularly keen to teach me something) and so I took pictures of the team and thought that these images could be used by the team and the organization.
We were preparing to leave as it was getting dark. In my mind was an assumption that confirmed the similarities of urban community programs in yet another city but what I felt was impressive was the way the team interacted with everyone in what was a thoroughly positive environment. Such thoughts were interrupted by Sherine, who insisted that we stay for a little longer and meet her parents.
‘How incredible’, I thought. ‘She is running the camp in her house.’
We were led to a sitting room where we waited and discussed the visit when her parents arrived. Their expression of gratitude towards the Urdu team is something that I will always treasure and it was only later that this wonderful and magnificent story was revealed.
Sherine’s educational journey hadn’t been the easiest – resembling that of so many girls in India – and perhaps even more specifically, so many Muslim girls. She had dropped out of school after grade 8 and it was generally assumed that this was the end of her educational journey. Two years after her dropping out, she came to learn of Pratham’s Second Chance program, enrolled in it and passed grade 10 exam – after which she enrolled in college. While this in itself is an achievement that many supporters of the second chance program would be delighted to hear, Sherine went one step further – in deciding to run Pratham’s urban camps in the evening – enrolling children in her community and improving their ability to read and do basic arithmetic.
I thought this to be an incredible story and one that I have recounted numerous times to people. It was, to me, perhaps not so much a confirmation of the urban camp model but of that saying again: Educate a girl and you educate a generation…