Bringing up the topic of the status of the girl child is unheard of in the male-dominated communities of rural Rajasthan. In this region, as in many places in India, the woman's place is at home. Few girls are given the opportunity to pursue education, let alone graduate and go to college. It is here, in Setrawa, that I felt it was necessary to implement a Student Empowerment Programme to begin a push for women to have equal status to men in the education system.
Veer Durgadas English School is a secondary school situated on the outskirts of Setrawa, a community located approximately 100km from Jodhpur in the middle of the Thar Desert. Of the total student population of 600, only 100 females attend on a regular basis. The Student Assembly Programme is currently being offered to grades 9 and 11, with 134 students in these grades combined (male to female ratio: 115/19).
"It was a surprising moment when all the boys expressed the need for women to have the same opportunities as men."
Working alongside Principal Mohan Singh was full of paradox. He was very open to the ideas of offering new opportunities to students, but at the same time expressed that the students did not have leadership in their blood and that they would not respond positively to new concepts and ideas.
When the students were gathered together to be presented this leadership opportunity, I asked those who wanted to learn English to stand up. Only eight students took the risk of speaking a foreign language in front of the entire group, six of them were female--a powerful moment demonstrating the fearlessness of the girl child's pursuit of education. After answering a few questions for me, I had the individuals turn around and said to the entire room, "this is what leadership looks like." This comment made the students who stood up beam with joy.
When the Student Assembly met for the first time--two girls and five boys representing their peers--a female was appointed to the position of President, with no opposition from her male counterparts. It was a surprising moment when all the boys expressed the need for women to have the same opportunities as men. Even though the teens were at first still in their disciplined mentality, it was not too long before they began to express their opinions and desires loudly. By the end of the meeting the group had successfully planned their first community development activity, an afternoon dedicated to sports.
"Only eight students took the risk to speak a foreign language in front of the entire group, six of whom were female"
With no teachers in sight and rain in the forecast, it was incredible to arrive at the school for their first programme, and witnessing all the student leaders having total control of their peers. Discussing the event with the Principal beforehand, he expressed his concern that the children would not listen and that the event would end up being a chaotic mess. It was an incredible moment to see the student leaders proving him wrong by keeping students in line, and immediately directing back those who fell out of place.
After the leaders divided up the teams, the games started. While the tournaments were played, students watched and simultaneously participated in a variety of team-building activities. It was in these side games that at their request and for the first time at school, boys and girls played together. As the tournaments finished, the winning teams were awarded with trophies. All the kids were grateful and appreciative of this day filled with fun and each and every student had a big smile on their face as they waved their goodbyes.
Only the first step has been taken to empower students at Veer Durgadas. The introduction of a student governance system opens a new door for community development. Leadership opportunities give students an intense feeling of responsibility for their peers, school, and the community in general. By empowering these students, their self-confidence will grow to new heights, making their futures limitless.
The status of the girl child has improved at this particular school, but there is a constant struggle to keep girls from dropping out of school. Providing a community of support for females is the first step schools must take in order to decrease the gender gap. Providing services for menstruation and safe spaces for a free line of communication about issues they may be experiencing at home that prevents them from continuing their education is necessary. I am proud that the Student Assembly Programme has become a catalyst for empowering female students at Veer Durgadas and creating an environment that could be a model for change all across India.