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It’s been several years, but I still remember her face. She was a teenager, thin and pale. She had come to the event hoping for a scholarship; I was one of the panel interviewing her. We volunteers had grouped into three panels to get through the students faster; the large hall was full of students waiting to be interviewed, and we had to leave by late afternoon to get back to the city by night. She had already been interviewed by one panel, who had sent her to us with a whispered aside that they weren’t sure what to make of her.
We had to choose the poorest and most deserving students, so we had to know not only about the student’s academic abilities and her (or his) ambitions, but also about her circumstances, to make sure she actually needed the money. To make sure that she would keep studying and not drop out to get married. Because there was only so much money to go around and we had to make sure we were using it well.
The questions were intrusive. We asked about her parents, her siblings. Her parents were both alive, she had a brother, they had a store in the village. She was doing well in school. She answered politely, but without emotion. On paper, the circumstances didn’t really hold up: we had others who seemed poorer; we should have moved on. But we felt we were missing something, so we probed deeper.
I explained to her, “We want to help you, but we need to know more. We need to be sure you need the help.” She hesitated, and then slowly told us more. It wasn’t a new story – a poor family, an alcoholic father. She had tears in her eyes.
As I placed her application in the acceptance file, I felt guilty for making her shred her dignity, the quiet reserve with which she had covered over her desperation.
I remember another girl, who came to one of our meetings in the city. She spoke with confidence and intelligence. Her marksheets spoke well of her abilities. But when we asked her where she lived so that our volunteers visit her at home and talk to her family, she hesitated. After a little coaxing, she revealed that she lived with her grandmother in the city’s red light area.
I spoke to one girl on the phone a few times. For the first couple of times, we struggled to find common ground. She wasn’t interested in movies. She liked reading, but hadn’t read a lot of books. She asked me about my work and asked for advice about getting a job. She was studying engineering, and she told me about a cooling system she had developed with her group. She said proudly that her teacher had said theirs was the best project in class.
Let me tell you just one more story. This was at another interview event at a small town school. We had already been at it for a few hours, when we were approached one of the teachers who was also a volunteer at the non-profit organization we were there for. He handed us the application of a girl and strongly recommended us accepting her. Her marks weren’t great, and she was late, which didn’t predispose her in our favour. But since the teacher was one of our best volunteers, we agreed to talk to her.
I went over to the back of the room to talk to her. She was even more hesitant than many of the shy young girls I had talked to. But she answered my questions. She told me she was the only child of her widowed mother. Her mother was a daily wage laborer. How did she manage to pay her school fees? I wondered. The girl replied that she paid her fees herself, by working in the fields during her vacations and holidays.
I thought of her moderate marks, and realized they weren’t low at all.
When I read about Women’s Web’s Girls Rock campaign, these were the girls I thought of. These young women who are doing so much with so little. Who inspire me and shame me at the same time.
They deserve more from us.
Today’s changemaker that we’d like to highlight is the Lila Poonawala Foundation, a Pune based trust that especially helps young women who have finished their schooling, and need additional funds to do their graduation or post-graduation. The grants offered by the trust came about as a realisation that even today, higher studies for women takes a backseat in many families that given a resource crunch, would prefer to set aside money for a son’s education or daughter’s marriage and dowry, rather than spending it on her education. In this situation, the trust is an attempt to support promising young women who would like to study further.
The foundation was set up by Lila Poonawalla, an early female entrant into an engineering career, and erstwhile CEO of Alfa Laval.
You can contribute to the trust’s corpus so that they can continue supporting many more worthy young women to study and pursue careers.
Pic credit: World Bank pics (Used under a Creative Commons license)