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Meet 3 grassroots champions who are leading educational reforms in their communities; young women who have risen from these very communities.
While working at the grassroots, one of the biggest challenges that we face is getting the support of the community.
Often, even with the best of intent, all energies and efforts, the initiatives fail because the communities aren’t involved and receptive to the change. But when people from the community come forward and take charge, change happens.
SMC (School Management Committee) is one such empowering concept. The RTE – Right to Education 2009 mandated creating an SMC in every government funded school. The aim is to improve the parental and community involvement in the education process.
SMC is an elected body with representatives from the community (12 parents, a social worker and an MLA representative), and engages with them on a common platform with other stakeholders – teachers and the school head to work collectively for the right kind of impact of the educational reforms in the community.
Recently, while collaborating with Saajha for the smartphone donation campaign for the girls of Delhi government schools, I had the opportunity of speaking to three such women who are leading SMC efforts from their respective communities from various parts of Delhi.
The journey hasn’t been easy for any one of them. They have struggled hard, been discouraged and devoid of opportunities. Sometimes their communities, other times the families, and even the lack of their conviction has stood against them. Nevertheless, they have chosen to challenge the status quo, patriarchal mindsets, as well as their self-doubts and, are working relentlessly to ensure that every child in their community can achieve her potential.
Read more about them.
Darshana, Jahangir Puri, Delhi
“At one point in my life, I had slipped deep into depression due to early marriage and motherhood. It felt like I was caught within myself. I wasn’t able to express what I felt even to my husband or parents. I was on medications. Things were very bad till that day when I got a call from my child’s school”.
Darshana is a mother to 3 children and a resident of Jahangir Puri from East Delhi. Darshana always aspired to take up a job and do something post her studies. And things seemed to be going in the right direction. However, unfortunately, her school was only till class 8th and to study beyond that, she needed to get admission to another distant school which never happened. It became an end of the road for her.
“My parents were under immense pressure from the community. Ladkiyon ko iske aage padne ki kya zaroorat hai? (What’s the need for girls to study beyond this), was their question.” And her parents were scared to go against this.
Darshana tried but in vain. She was married soon after entering her 18th year and embraced motherhood becoming a mother to two girls and a boy. Then one day sometime in 2013-14, a call from the government school became a ray of hope. The school was inducting parents for the SMC and she was one of the selected parents to receive the call.
Shares Darshana, “I didn’t know anything about it, but something felt right. I think I was looking for a channel to just move out of the system I was stuck in, and this seemed to be the right thing. I met the teacher and she explained to me about the need and the importance of the work, and I was on board”.
For the next few years, as Darshana started to interact with more children and parents, she understood how liberating it was. She was talking to children, meeting people, coaching parents and mobilizing the community for their greater involvement in the learning of their children. “Mujhe aisa laga didi ki mein ek pinjre mein thi tab tak (I felt like I was caught in a cage till now, I felt always entrapped.) It was a cage I had captured myself into. And it was so nice to be out doing something which gave a new identity, that feeling only helped get me out of depression.”
Darshana shares with me with a sense of pride about the Bolo app (a free app by Google to help enhance the reading skills especially in the primary students) she is coaching parents about these days. She very confidently facilitates workshops with many parents at one go.
I ask her how was the experience when she first received her salary, “I cried didi, literally. It was such a big thing! I could feel a change in myself. This identity and independence gave me the courage to think with clarity and share what was going on with me with my husband. I realised that talking to your partner and sharing was so important.”
But this didn’t change much. Even with a salary now, there were struggles. While there was an understanding from the spouse, in-laws objected and rather questioned this newfound support from her husband. A man supporting his wife was something that doesn’t go well in the family.
“When I started workshops my husband who works in a factory, also accompanied me sometimes. He was so overwhelmed seeing me interact and lead the group. I could see a sense of pride in his eyes.” That instilled a lot of courage in Darshana. She felt encouraged and empowered, and slowly could change the attitude of her in-laws too.
Today, Darshana is a single point of contact for all the answers the parents seek in her community. She is a woman on a mission to also inspire other women to get out of the homes and take up something which they want to do especially helping them find the courage to speak.
“I thank Saajha for raising me by giving me exposure. Now I see a path and want to spread that light to others. I see many women who are mothers going through this due to early marriage and motherhood.”
I ask her about the biggest challenge which she feels cripples communities like her, “Ladka ladki ka bhedbaav abhi bhi bahut zyada hai didi, (Gender discrimination is a big challenge in our communities) But as if giving the solution herself she adds, “par humein chup nahin rahna hai, is problem ko share karna hai. Once we open up and share our internal struggles, it helps.”
So true, Darshana’s journey is sure to inspire many women to challenge the status quo and rise above adversities to earn identity.
Shahida, Yamuna Vihar, Delhi
“Earlier when my husband’s friends met us on the road, I used to go and stand like 10 steps away. I was shy and hesitant. Now, because of my work and the new identity, when they meet us on the road, they speak to me rather than my husband. Now, my husband steps away and stands at a distance,” Shahida laughs
Shahida (Rajini) hails from the Yamuna Vihar area of East Delhi, an underprivileged area populated by daily wage workers primarily in construction. Soon after her inter-faith love marriage, Shahida had to move to Delhi from Mumbai due to a family emergency. Her husband took over the family run tea stall and Shahida got busy taking care of home and children. A class 11th pass out Shahida shares that her journey of creating an identity for herself began as a result of questioning the status quo regarding inconvenience caused to parents and children of the government school where her son used to study.
A mother to 4 daughters and a son, seeing her passion and questioning spirit, soon she became a part of SMC and actively started to help, acting as a bridge between the parent community and the school.
“Initially I thought that it would help me to be better involved in my children’s studies and progress, but never did I realise how I would be able to impact the lives of other children as well as the parents”.
Fondly referred to as “madam jo humari baat principal tak paunchatai hain (someone who helps us connect with the principal)”, Shahida has played a crucial role in her community in bringing a mindset and attitude change in the parents, most of whom are illiterate and always underestimated the power of involvement of a parent in their child’s education. Since then, she has helped hundreds of parents creating awareness, helping them with admission formalities, guiding them on the school process and also sensitizing them to how a gender-equal community is the need of the hour. Talking about the challenges she shares
“I started as a volunteer. And so, there were questions about how I was compromising the family time to work and tend to others even with no pay. There were objections from in-laws – what was the need for this? A daughter in law’s duty was to take care of the home and not compromise on that especially when I wasn’t paid. But I am fortunate that my spouse stood by me. He isn’t educated but strongly feels that I should make the best use of my knowledge and help others”.
For Shahida, leaving the four walls of the house to help others and this new identity is something that has made her feel complete giving her a sense of dignity and empowerment.
Shahida smiles “baat karne ka tareeka mujhe mere kaam ne sikhaya hai. Mujhe koi poochta nahin tha par ab har kaam ke liye aage karte hain. Bahar ka kaam ho, ya phir ghar ka koi masla, ab sab mujhe hee yaad karte hain. Yeh meri life ka changing moment hai,” And then bursts into laughter. (My work has taught me how to connect with people, speak to them. There was a time when no one paid attention to me in my family but now for everything they look up to me.)
And why not, Shahida is now an earning member and contributes well to the family income. Something she strongly propagates to every woman of her community; that they should be financially independent. And she ensures that she rubs off this self-belief which she has earned through her work, on every woman she comes in contact with.
Not just the women but for own girls, she is a big role model. Shahida shares how her daughters are keen to carry on the work of mobilising the communities even when they grow up and become independent. She leaves me with a promising note.
“Didi, I always thought that the people who have money, people who drive cars and have big homes can help the community by donating their money but actually, each one of us can in our capacity. And I believe I am a true example of that.”
Isn’t Shahida’s positivity a big force of change for any community?
Renu, Azad Pur, Delhi
“Mein 9th class mein second aayee thi, didi. Poore school ke saamne mujhe meri madam ne shabaashi dee thi aur phir 12th mein distinction aayee. (I stood second in my class 9th. My teacher announced my name in the assembly. Then in class 12th I scored a distinction),” Renu shares with me with delight as we start talking.
“Who could have thought that someone like me who was in Delhi and was a good student, studied without any tuition wouldn’t get a chance to study beyond 12th? I wanted to become a teacher and I got the admission form also, but my mother tore it up,” Renu continues with a certain low in her voice as she reminisces the past.
Sometimes our motivation to take up something fiercely is attributed to the scars we got through our experiences in life, and Renu’s story is like that.
Born and brought up in Delhi in a family of 4 sisters and 2 brothers, Renu felt that she had a fair chance to realise her dream of becoming a teacher but her family wasn’t supportive at all. Post her school, she was married and had to move to a village. However, as luck would have it, a survey conducted in the village and a job opportunity for her spouse in a steel factory in Delhi, brought her back to the city.
When Renu came back to Delhi, she was determined to raise her children and save them from what she had undergone. She got involved in their education from day one and ensured that they aced at their school. Seeing her involvement and commitment, she was called to the school and soon inducted as a member of the SMC team. Since then, she has been on a mission to create awareness about the need and importance of an involved parent in the education of children from a marginalized background. Not just that, many of her suggestions are now accepted protocols at school or part of school reforms.
Fondly addressed as “meeting waali didi” she heads the SMC from her community as the Chairperson, and has won many accolades for her exemplary work.
Talking about her work, she shares, “I have taken tuitions, helped hundreds of parents in the admission process of their children, as well as filled many EWS forms for free. When parents thank me, that’s my greatest reward.”
Renu shares with me how there have been instances when admissions have been denied because parents didn’t have documents like electricity bill, but she has helped them by going out of the way to arrange necessary documents, and suggesting ways and finally procuring the admissions for the children. Not just that, recently 15 students from the community who couldn’t be traced by the school have joined back, thanks to her efforts and hard work. Today, Renu is a role model for women as well as young girls of her community.
“Mein hamesha teacher banna chahti thi, ab mujhe lagta hai teacher nahin par teacher jaisi to ban gayee. Maine tuitions lee hain aur parents ki workshops bhi (I have always wanted to become a teacher, though I am not a teacher but am like that; I have taken classes for parents too.)”
Renu shares with me how her husband who works in a steel factory is proud of her achievements. But it wasn’t like that initially. Renu had started as a volunteer and continued doing that for a considerable time, which didn’t go very well with him and the family. But Renu was a force who was ready to take on all the challenges. Now, she is earning and coaching many of his husband’s friends in the community, which makes him swell with pride.
When we spoke, Renu had just shifted to her new home, and with a choked voice full of happiness, shared with me. “Yeh ghar mere salary ki wajah se banaa hai didi. (My salary has contributed to buying this house).”
I was filled with a deep respect for her perseverance and courage, when she shared the incident which had motivated her to look for her own house. Someone in her rented accommodation had tried to assault her daughter while the family was asleep at night on the terrace. Thankfully, the culprit was caught as her daughter shouted and raised an alarm. Renu is fighting a case in the court against him, and is hopeful that she will win.
We end our conversation with an invitation for me to visit her new home and her community, which I gladly accept wishing her more power in her endeavours.
Women like Darshana, Renu and Shahida are writing new chapters in their communities, creating history by breaking stigmas and paving the path for many women and young girls who look up to them. While their role in ensuring more impact and bigger success on the outreach and efficacy of education programs amongst the families of first-generation learners is commendable, their courage and conviction in inspiring other women in their communities are also worth a mention. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, stories of women like them need to written and passed on as a legacy for the girls who would take their inspiration from these women and chart new territories.
Images source: – Darshana, Shahida, Renu
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