My program embarked upon a weeklong excursion to the edge of the Thar desert this week, during which we visited a variety of organizations that address development issues in the western state of Rajasthan. Education appeared as a common theme in many of these visits, especially when discussing women’s empowerment.
Among development scholars and workers, giving girls the opportunity to attend school is commonly considered a potent way to empower girls, but families in the region have mixed feelings on what’s best for their female children. Three of the organizations I visited illustrated the opinions and changing mindsets among both urban and rural families.
At the Binani Girl’s College in Bikaner, students work toward a bachelor’s degree in both technical and arts subjects. The girls I talked to aspire to be software programmers. But for some, their families do not support this goal, despite having given them permission to attend college and get a degree. The families expect their daughters to become housewives following graduation, regardless of their expertise. Being allowed to attend Binani College is only one of many hurdles in these girls’ uphill battle.
URMUL Balika Shikshan Shivir is a rural girls’ education camp that fights for girls’ right to education by facilitating six-month education camps for girls unable to attend primary school. In those six months, the camp provides not only a kindergarden–fifth grade education, but practical skills, vocational courses and other workshops. On the day we visited, the camp ran a two-day workshop for young girls explaining how to utilize India’s new child support hotline. In a group of about 40 girls, around 12 raised their hands when asked if they were married. The girl next to me pulled out her phone and showed me her husband, whose picture filled the background of her screen. In fighting to give girls an education, the camp staff are also fighting against child marriage.
One of our final stops on the weeklong excursion was in Nathusar, a hot, quiet and dusty village in the semiarid region of the state. Like many of the Indian communities I have visited, men occupy the forefront of most discussions and meetings in Nathusar, while women are absent or hang in the periphery. My program staff explained that the married women would not speak in front of men, and younger women would not speak in front of their mother-in-law as well.
In an isolated group, however, we had the opportunity to talk with the women and their children. In a group of about 15 girls, only one had dropped out after fifth grade. Every other girl attended school either in the village or in a nearby town. When asked what they hoped for their own daughters, the older women responded that they wanted them to be strong and educated, and possibly go on to attend college—a far cry from their own experiences and from the expectations expressed in many other villages.
This last visit left me with the most questions. How did this mindset change take place in the women of Nathusar? At what point did the community realize that their girls deserve the same opportunities as their boys? And although they’re being educated, will the girls still inherit the role of housewife and be expected to remain silent around men when they grow up?
Perhaps this last village is an anomaly, or perhaps it is emblematic of the subjective nature of women’s education—for whatever reason, some families are more supportive of education than other families. This calls for community-specific development projects, even in a single state such as Rajasthan. While the girls’ education camp can help girls catch up in its locality, the girls at Binani College could benefit most from post-graduation resources, and in Nathusar, the village could address barriers to higher education. Each community has a unique need, and each needs a unique solution.