Feb 6, 2019

A New Future

We’re all starting to think this was a bad idea. Our guide has set up a bicycle tour of old Bangalore and there are fourteen of us all on bikes waiting to cross the street. With no stop lights or stop signs, the traffic is full chaos and crossing the street is a skill in and of itself.


We’ve been joined by five of the nine Shadhika Scholarship girls from Baale Mane, the others had to stay back because they do not yet know how to ride a bike. Even those who are now with us are visibly struggling. Just thirty minutes in, we call the ride off, after three girls were unable to continue. They are heartbroken. We promise that we will try again next year – but this time do the ride in the countryside by the Baale Mane home, where the roads are not as treacherous. “And next year,” I suggest, “you can all lead the tour.”


“Yes,” they say, giving me a look of cautious determination.


After regrouping, the girls take us to their college and dormitory. Because the girls at Baale are orphans or have been legally separated from their families, these young women must begin their journey of living on their own in the city by the time they are 18. Shadhika’s support helps them with this transition and supports them through college or vocational school until they get their first job.


On the ride over to their college, Pallavi* takes her seat next to me. She is graduating from college in May. “I am feeling very anxious about my future,” she confesses. A journalism major, she wants to get a job at a news station. However, like anywhere, she knows that such an opportunity will only come through personal referrals.


For many of the girls we support, this is the challenge. As the first in their community to go to college, their social networks are limited, so finding out about job openings or having someone personally vouch for them is rare.  Because of this, developing strong job placement networks in India is now a priority for Shadhika.  


Pallavi and I talk through her anxiety and brainstorm how she might try to find a job opening in her field. She’s talking with students who have already graduated to see if they can help and mentions there is a news station nearby that offers classes. We consider that this might be a good way to make herself known to them.


Still, I can see how the weight of this next step in her life troubles her. Switching the topic, I ask her about the bike ride earlier in the day. She was one of the two girls who mastered the ride. Was it hard? I ask. “Yes,” she confesses, “but I said to myself, ‘You can do this. You’re almost a college graduate!’”


I’m often asked about Shadhika’s ultimate goal. Is it education, job placement, girls’ rights? But those are just products of our goal. In the end, when all is said and done, our real legacy will be to ensure that girls like Pallavi have the tools and information they need to make their own decisions in their lives. So that they can navigate path with confidence and skill, regardless of any traffic they may encounter.

Nov 26, 2018

Her Fire Burned Bright

Donors and board members would sometimes ask me why we were supporting Uddami in Kolkata. At first glance, it seemed like an outlier for Shadhika support, just being a computer-training center.

When I got those questions, I would just reply, “Wait until you meet Rabia.”

Rabia was Uddami’s Director, and a product herself of Uddami, like all of the teachers there. Rabia was found on the streets as a child and taken to a Kolkata orphanage at an early age. Once there, the orphanage stopped her schooling at class 5, saying it was more important for her to learn the skills of being a wife and mother than to go to school. But Rabia had a fire inside of her for learning – to be more than that.

One day the founders of Uddami came to the orphanage, looking for students. Rabia fought to get herself seen for this opportunity and eventually convinced the headmaster to enroll her in classes. She thrived in Uddami’s courses, her flame inside fully ignited. She eventually became an Uddami teacher and later, took over as its Director.

Along the way, she sent herself back to school to complete her education. Everyone told her it would take 3-4 years to complete to class 12. She did it all in a little more than a year.

Rabia’s story in and of itself has always been inspiring, but what made it even more so was how, with every accomplishment she attained personally, she reached back behind her and pulled others like her up too. It was hard to walk a block in Kolkata with her without someone stopping her and thanking her for what she did for him or her. She helped so many complete their education, learn computers, get their first jobs, escape from child marriage, and more. She was deeply involved in making sure those in her life lived up to their full potential and was tough on those whom she felt were not doing so.

Rabia had big dreams for Uddami and I am grateful that Shadhika helped her to realize some of those dreams. Together we added a spoken English course and a Life Skills course to their computer curriculum which are helping Uddami students get the additional skills they need to secure jobs in the formal economy and to help them negotiate on their own behalf at home and in their relationships. On our last visit, her eyes lit up as we brainstormed ideas for developing a new capstone class for her students where they would complete a Human Rights curriculum and then incorporate all the skills they have learned at Uddami to develop community projects to advance and advocate for those rights.

A few months ago, I received a phone call telling me that Rabia had died. Last year she joined me at my husband’s family’s home in Kolkata to celebrate Diwali. Together, we lit fireworks to celebrate, carefully igniting each other’s sparklers off of the end of another’s as they were dying out. Yes, her light has gone out but luckily for us, she passed her flame onto hundreds, if not thousands of others, over her short, amazing life.

Rabia burns bright in me, and in so many others, especially the young women in computer courses at Uddami. We are grateful to support such a wonderful organization, and look forward to supporting Uddami carry her torch in the future.


Nov 12, 2018

The Tyranny of Princes

Our visit with Equal Community Foundation (ECF) in Pune has been sitting with me, challenging me to grow in my understanding. Challenging me to see our work in new ways.

This is the beginning of our second year working with ECF as part of our Boys for Girls initiative which focuses on working with boys and young men to teach them the skills they need to advance girls’ rights and gender equality.

Our support underwrites the cost of an after-school program that leads boys between 13-20 through three stages of development: from understanding and awareness of gender issues (“foundation”), to taking personal actions to address gender issues (“action”), to designing and implementing collective actions to address discrimination of women and girls in their communities (“leadership”).

On the day of our visit, we meet with young men and their families who are currently in the action and leadership stages. We first meet with their mothers, who enthusiastically share how this program has improved their relationship with their sons. They recount how their sons now help them with household chores, cooking, cleaning, fetching water, and going to the market.

Such actions may sound like a small things to an outsider, but in India, from the moment they are born, boys are seen as the future for their families, their success critical to the family’s success. As such, they are often doted upon by their elders, often treated like “princes” in their homes, absolved from chores entirely while their sisters and mothers bear the entire burden of the household.

We ask what the mothers what their husbands think about their sons helping them with their domestic work. The mothers assert their husbands approve of this change, but also share that their sons do not talk with their fathers about what they are learning at ECF, preferring to confide only in them. When pressed about why, they tell us it is because of the continued fear the boys have of their fathers.

After the mothers leave, the session with the boys begins. At first the session looks like any of the other student session I have observed in my work at Shadhika. A group of 20 boys, each in the varying, often awkward, stages of adolescence, come into the community room and sit in a circle together on the mats on the floor. The session facilitator, or mentor as ECF calls them, asks them to recount the actions they have taken since their last session. Hands go up, sharing what they have done. Helping their mothers, playing with their sisters on the streets, stopping a friend who made a disrespectful comment about a girl.

The session continues with a story about a boy who wants to play with a doll. The mentor engages the boys in a discussion of this. “What rights does he have to be able to do this?” he asks. “He has the right to play,” says one. “He has the right to make his own choices,” offer another.

After a while, the boys brainstorm their plans to address the harassment of women they observe in their vegetable market. We discuss putting up posters against this behavior in the square, working with the police to enforce the issue, or taking videos to catch men engaged in the act. I suggest making a street play about this issue and performing it for everyone. The room grows silent and one of boys quietly shakes his head, explaining why this won’t work, “No one listens to us, because we are little.”

I find myself overcome by sadness, the cumulation of the day overwhelming me. Suddenly aware of how trapped these “princes” are. At face value, they seem to have everything a girl wishes for – freedom, education, a voice. Yet is it really freedom if there is only one right answer? Only one way to behave and be in the world?

As I continue to process this visit the stakes become clearer to me. Just like girls, they too are fighting to be seen. To be allowed the freedom to help with housework, to play with dolls, to be taken seriously, to escape from the constant and overwhelming burden of being the family’s sole hope for a better future.

When Shadhika started this journey two years ago to work with boys, we conceptualized this about helping boys and young men become allies for women and girls to end child marriage, harrassment, and gender based violence. And while this is surely an important part of this work, I am realizing, through these young men, it is so much more. At its core, it is about empowering the next generation of leaders to decide for themselves who they want to be and to meet and support each other equally in these tasks.

It’s about destroying the tyranny of princes.


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