Friday, December 23, 2016

How can cross-cultural instruction and technology help create safety for the education of girls and young women?

In November, I received an invitation from Kirthi Jayakumar, founder, The Red Elephant Foundation, to be a part of an awareness campaign. Her email mentioned:

"The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign for the year 2016 was initiated and coordinated by Rutgers University. This campaign aims to build awareness about gender-based violence. Since 2013, The Red Elephant Foundation has actively supported the campaign and initiated various activities in line with the Annual Campaign theme. 

The theme of the campaign for this year is  “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Make Education Safe for All” We are putting together a series of videos from Educators who have worked with/ are working with vulnerable groups and share their experiences from the ground on how education can be made safe for all."

She asked me to record a three-to-five minute video on How can cross-cultural instruction and technology help create safety for the education of girls and young women? Since I was travelling and I tend to talk a lot, she obliged me to extend the length of the video.

Here's my speech:

Hello. My name is Eisha Sarkar and I am a writer, designer and educator based in Vadodara, India. There are three stories I would like to share:

The first story is about how my camera made a few tribal girls proud.

In 2012, I worked as the Documentation Consultant for UNICEF, Gujarat. It was a unique position in South Asia and my job was to document the success stories of UNICEF's intervention in education and early childhood education in seven tribal districts of Gujarat. Some of the villages I travelled to did not exist on Google map. Others were so deep inside the forest that their dwellers were unaware of the fact that India had attained Independence from the British. In those rural schools – often, single-room buildings – UNICEF's education consultants would try to convince villagers to send their children to school. Many villagers were hostile towards outsiders. Others would shun any talk of education. Some of these districts have missionary schools and tribal leaders fear that their children will be converted to Christianity if they send them to school. There have been instances of attacks on missionary institutions. Those were the challenges we faced.

In one village, we had organized a meeting of the village women and girls with the sarpanch. As I stepped out of the car with my DSLR camera around my neck, a notepad and pen in hand and a laptop bag, I watched 200 pairs of eyes turn towards me, “the outsider”. I did not speak any Gujarati and so had to rely on a translator to communicate with the villagers. Having lived in a cosmopolitan city all my life, I was surprised to find that all the 200 women and girls gathered there bore the same last name: Rathwa. An entire village of just one tribe! As UNICEF's education consultants demonstrated the kits and books, I started taking their pictures and scribbling notes. I still think that vision of me carrying a camera, speaking without hesitation to the male village elders and scribbling notes did more to advance the cause of women's empowerment and girl child education, than any of the talks that followed.

Some of the boys had never seen a technology more complex than a Nokia cellphone. I offered them my camera to take pictures. The girls were shy. I coaxed them to hold the camera and press the click buttons. They giggled as they clicked. I told them they had done a better job than the boys and they smiled with pride.

Girls excited to see my camera in Bordha village,Pavi Jetpur

My next story is about how Sanskrit is helping rural women progress.

The reasons why many tribal families in east and south Gujarat don't send their girls to school vary from early marriages, menstruation taboos, to lack of toilets to a general apathy towards education. Eight years ago, I drove over to a very small town called Kalol in the Panchmahal district of Gujarat. I found that the women's college there ranked second in the state in the stream of Sanskrit. An ancient Indian language, Sanskrit is hardly used in India today. I asked the principal why they ran BA Sanskrit courses. He told me that the tribals would never send their girls to college to study commerce or sociology or even Gujarati. But Sanskrit, because it's the language of the Hindu religious texts, was different. The girls came to college to study Sanskrit, a language their parents would never have had the chance to learn. It's not a part of tribal culture. The college would offer them side courses in English and computers. After earning their degrees, the young women would get jobs as Sanskrit teachers in schools in neighbouring towns and villages. This cross-cultural instruction in a local college has boosted women's literacy in a 'backward' district of the state.

My third story is about sanitary napkins

In 2015, I met an enterprising couple – Shyam and Swati Bedekar. They run an organization called Vatsalya Foundation, which, among other things, helps set up sanitary napkin-manufacturing units in rural homes. Swati, a teacher by profession, noticed how girls in tribal areas skipped school at the time of their menses. Within homes, they were forced into isolation for those five days a month. They had no access to sanitary napkins (the ones in the market were too expensive) and used old rags, newspapers, ash, mud, etc, during their periods. Naturally, the incidence of infection was very high. It took years of research for Swati and Shyam to come up with a viable solution: a low-cost eco-friendly sanitary pad that could be incinerated without creating any hazardous by-products. While initially they started sourcing and distributing the pads, the couple realized the only way they could keep costs down is by creating manufacturing set-ups in people's homes. Shyam invented a machine that would be easy to operate in a small room. Thus started Sakhi, an organization run by women that creates low-cost eco-friendly sanitary napkins. Rural women, many of them illiterate, run it like a business. I have met some of them. A few years ago, they would not even utter a word in front of their husbands. Today, they are comfortable walking up to a manager to open a bank account. A single unit in a village makes a lot of difference. Watching their mothers make the pads, encourages the girls to use them and makes them more hygiene-conscious. The women are able to financially support their husbands and girls no longer drop out of school citing menstruation as the reason.

With their awards: Swati and Shyam Bedekar with their team of Sakhi

These three stories show how technology and cultural instruction have been used by local institutions and people to create safety for the education of girls and young women – safety, by trying to change the patriarchal mindset that sees women as little more than chattel, safety, by giving them the opportunity to learn something their parents value a lot but could never do in their lifetimes, safety, by bringing a hygienic solution to a social problem.

We often think of cross-cultural interaction as something that happens across the boundaries of nations and religions. But it really is something that could be in your own backyard. The places I have described in this story are within a 70 Km radius from my house in Vadodara, which is a medium-sized city. Those 70 kilometres make a difference between whether I go to one of the best universities in this country or I get a chance to go to school at all. It's the difference between the choice of courses and careers I have and the right to exercise any choice at all. Those 70 kilometres connect the 21st century with 19th century mindsets. It's this conflict between the past and the present that has killed more dreams than any war waged on this planet. And it's this conflict that only education can resolve.

Thank you.

If you would like to hear me talk, click on this link

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