After several months without going to the field, I finally got a chance this week to return to rural Rajasthan where Educate Girls’ runs its program. For me this is probably the most exciting part of my job as I get a chance to interact with our volunteers, catch up with our field staff – and of course meet the children we help.
Boarding the train on Tuesday afternoon, I had packed two cameras, my laptop and some lndian pieces of clothing. Despite my fair skin, it’s important to blend in as much as possible and respect the local sensibilities. This means loose pants and scarves whatever the temperature, since Rajasthani villagers stand on the traditional side. This is one of the reasons why it is so important for us to get local volunteers to advocate such a touchy issue as girls’ education. Our Team Balika members are indeed our best asset when it comes to convincing parents to send their daughters to school and talking to the heads of the communities. They know the rules, they know the codes – they know how to build a persuasive argumentation. Our program just wouldn’t be as efficient if we didn’t have these young volunteers on the ground to enroll girls and to help teachers.
After a full night in the train, I arrived on Wednesday morning, starting my day with a “bucket shower” taken at the Khalsa “Palace” and breakfasting on deliciously spicy Poha. My colleague, Siya, and I had a full day of traveling ahead. We had planned to visit neighboring villages and to collect testimonials from our beneficiaries. A film crew is coming next month and we wanted to make sure they have enough material to shoot picturesque stories.
We met with Ranji and Pooja, two sisters who told us how they ended up living with their uncle’s family. After their mother got sick a couple of years ago, they had to move to their uncle’s to be fed and looked after correctly. Their drinking father does not provide anything for their well-being. Every day Ranji and Pooja handle their share of the farm chores before walking several kilometers to attend the local school. Life is definitely not easy for them, but since they have been living in the farm, they at least manage to get some education.
A few houses away, we were introduced to Neeha. When she isn’t at school, Neeha collects wood while her dad drinks away his meager salary. Her mother and grand-mother recounted their difficult situation, stopping to cover their face as soon as Neeha’s grand-father passed the threshold.
We left Neeha’s to meet Priyanka and her family next door. Priyanka’s single mother insisted on offering us massala tea that she prepared on the dusty floor of their one-room house. The milk probably came from the cow sleeping in their backyard. Even if it was my fourth cup this day, I drank it readily. There is nothing like Indian chai – and it would be most rude to refuse when you know how much it is worth to them!
Thursday was dedicated to the art competition we had set up in different schools around the district of Pali. We came with pencils, crayons and sheets of paper and requested students to draw their thoughts on education. The result talked for itself. The children had drawn girls crying, underage wedding ceremonies, child labor… But they had also sketched children studying happily and playing in the school ground. Insightful pictures of their everyday life.
Day 3 & 4
On Friday and Saturday, I attended one of our Team Balika training sessions. I tried to participate as much as I could and sang a French children rhyme before pretending to be a dog (Yes, training sessions are very creative and extremely participative at EG!) but at the end I just sat at the back of the room. Even if the teaching was very interactive with its AV modules, my understanding of Hindi was quite limited. I took this opportunity to catch up on work, wrote my final iCats learning diary and enjoyed chatting with our field staff during tea breaks.
This Financial Literacy training had been designed by one of our corporate partners to increase financial awareness in rural areas. Even if many of our volunteers already have a bank account, this is not the case of most villagers. When they need to borrow funds, a lot of them still depend on local money lenders who provide grants at exorbitant rates. Thus losing your husband or marrying your daughter away can mean a lifelong commitment whose interest rate quickly asphyxiates your family budget. By informing on life insurance policies, savings and other banking products, we hope to improve the economic situations in these remote communities.
Traveling to Rajasthan and interacting with our stakeholders always fill me with renewed purpose. Each field trip gives me keys to better understand our program and our targets. If much still needs to be done to eradicate gender-gap districts in India, I am confident that we are already creating social impact on the ground. And as Educate Girls keeps growing, 4 million children should benefit from better quality education in the coming five years.