Triumph in the Face of Adversity: Padma’s Story

Padma; Photo Credit: Educate Girls
Padma; Photo Credit: Educate Girls

My name is Padma. I’m 21 years old and live in a small village in Pali District, Rajasthan, India. My journey till now, even during these young years, has been filled with harsh realities – things I never expected could happen to me.

When I was in the 8th Standard, my parents got me married along with my elder brothers and sisters. This custom of getting brothers and sisters mass married is common in my region to cut down on wedding costs. While boys are often given the freedom to continue studying after marriage, girls are expected to stay home. My father told my in-laws that he wouldn’t send me to their house for at least a year after the marriage, so I could finish the school year. Shortly though, my in-laws started pressuring my father to send me to their home and finally my father relented.

At the beginning my new family members were fine and I was learning to adjust in my new home, but eventually I started experiencing a change in the way I was being treated. Fights were picked on the smallest and silliest of things and household chores were increasingly being heaped on me. Daily, I was sent alone to the jungle to collect wood to be made into charcoal and then sold. I had to use that same wood for cooking each night. Soon I was being regularly abused and beaten. My husband was fed up with having me around; he saw me as more of a nuisance than a wife. He threatened to leave home or commit suicide if I continued to stay with him and so my father-in-law begged me to leave.

Believing that I would be taking a step to make my in-laws happy, I left and returned to my parent’s home. I didn’t tell my parents of my situation or that I couldn’t go back to my husband. I thought I finally had a few moments of peace but this calm didn’t last long. Neighbors and other members of the community had started questioning my whereabouts. Rumors spread that I had run away. Having a runaway daughter-in-law made my father-in-law appear weak and unable to control his household. A few days after I had left, he came to my home with a few others and beat me up. They also beat up my mother and younger brother. Though they did not want me to return, attacking my family and me was punishment for bringing shame to the family. My father vowed to never let me return to their home. That’s when I knew I had the opportunity to start fresh. I got back to my studies, completed both my 10th and 12th standards and pursued a Bachelor of Education degree. I’m grateful for the support of my parents and their good decision to not forcibly send me back to my husband. I know many girls don’t get this support and lead miserable lives.

I was approached by an Educate Girls Field Coordinator to become a Team Balika. Since I was among the most educated in the community, they thought I would be a good fit. I went to a recruitment meeting and learned about the opportunity to make a difference in my community, and to help girls who may not otherwise have the opportunities that I had. I saw Team Balika as an opportunity to help my community realize the downside to marrying girls young and the importance of education and teaching a girl her rights. Today, it’s been a year since I’ve become a Team Balika and I’ve learned so much. I have the confidence that I can achieve anything I put my heart to and my sincere desire is that no one has to suffer what I did. Perhaps if I had been more educated and my parents, too, understood all our rights, I wouldn’t have taken the abuse as I did.

As a Team Balika, I find myself in a position of influence and an agent of change. I have become more confident and am more informed of my rights.

As I speak to students, parents and teachers I know I am reaching my community in a way that will shape our future for good. Educate Girls has had a profound effect on me, and I am happy that I can be a part of such a wonderful organization!

Educate Girls’ Team Balika is comprised of over 5000 community volunteers who work as champions for girls’ education and catalysts for school reform in the districts of Rajasthan that have the worst gender gaps in education. They boost enrollment, retention and learning outcomes for all students and have helped to enroll over 70,000 out-of-school girls in school. 

Educate Girls works to mobilize communities to take a stand against gender disparity in schools and prioritize girls’ education.  Our comprehensive program model engages students, teachers, schools, communities and the government to ensure increased enrollment, retention and improved learning outcomes. Because of our innovative, cost-effective, and results-oriented model, Educate Girls has recently been awarded the Millennium Alliance Award from USAID and the 2014 Wise Award for innovation in education.

To stay up to date on our activities, follow us on Facebook and Twitter @educate_girls

India’s Newborn Action Plan

Globally, 2.9 million newborns die within the first month of life. India, with a population totalling 17.5 percent of the global population, accounts for a startling 27 percent of the global newborn mortality rate with over 780,000 newborn deaths every year, the highest newborn mortality rate in the world. On September 17th, India launched its national Newborn Action Plan (INAP) to stop and reverse this disturbing trend.

Image c/o Gates Foundation

Based on the findings and strategies promoted in The Lancet’s Every Newborn series, INAP aims to reduce India’s newborn mortality rate from its current 29 deaths per 1,000 births to under 10 deaths per 1,000 births by 2030. In order to accomplish this goal, INAP focuses on improving the following six evidence-based, effective strategies:

  1. Preconception and antenatal care
  2. Care during labor and childbirth
  3. Immediate newborn care
  4. Care of healthy newborns
  5. Care of small and sick newborns
  6. Care beyond newborn survival

Additionally, the issue of gendercide does not go ignored. Because a girl’s family traditionally must pay a dowry in order to marry, families – especially in poorer regions – favor having boys over girls. As a result, each month approximately 50,000 female fetuses are aborted or killed at birth, thrown into rivers, or simply left to die. An estimated one million girls in India “disappear” every year. With INAP, the Health Ministry takes this long-standing tradition of gender-bias into account and aims to eliminate gender-based differences in newborn health care.

“These are preventable deaths and now we have an action plan for preventing them.” – Harsh Vardhan, India Health Minister

Although India as a whole is on track to achieve Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 4 and 5 (reducing child mortality and maternal mortality by two-thirds and three-quarters respectively), MDG success is not consistent across the country. For example, the state of Kerala already has a neonatal mortality rate of seven deaths per 1,000 births, yet the poorer states of Bihar, UP, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are far behind, with a combined neonatal mortality rate amounting to 56 percent of such deaths nationwide.

“Healthy mothers and healthy children are crucial for India to realize the demographic dividend.” – Melinda Gates

It is important to emphasize that India’s efforts to reduce the newborn mortality rate are not limited to merely survival. With the launch of INAP, the Health Ministry will focus increased attention on improving the health and lives of both healthy and sick newborns. In a country where shunning those with disabilities, neuro-developmental delays, and birth defects is not uncommon, recognizing the value of all newborns, both sick and healthy, is a major step in the right direction.

With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization and UNICEF, India’s Health Ministry is confident in its ability to reduce newborn deaths nationwide – and if India’s INAP efforts echo the success of its anti-polio campaign, the future for India’s newborns looks promising.


A Father’s Love

Across India, over 3 million girls are out of school. The state of Rajasthan has 9 of India’s 26 worst gender gap districts for girls’ education. Studies show, in this state, 40% of girls drop out of school before class 5, only 15% primary school children can read a simple story in Hindi, and 68% girls are married before the legal age of 18. Cultural norms and longstanding traditions often serve as barriers to girls’ education, but many other factors also lead to high drop out and low enrollment rates for girls. Educate Girls is working to tackle these issues.

A Father’s Love: Diya’s Story

Shravan Ram* (32), from the district of Pali in Rajasthan works as a laborer in a factory. He and his wife never had a formal education, were married young and have three children – two boys (aged 10 & 8) and a girl (13). Three years ago Shravan removed his daughter Diya* from school while she was in the 3rd grade.  An Educate Girls Team Balika member, Saroj,* who belonged to the same village, approached him to try and understand his reasons for taking his daughter out of school. Shravan explained,

Not many girls are enrolled in school which means Diya often has to walk the distance alone. The school doesn’t have toilets or facilities for drinking water. Since my boys are young, if my wife and I are out for work together, Diya has to take care of her younger brothers and some household chores. It’s better for her to stay at home.

Saroj expressed her understanding of his concerns but insisted on the importance of schooling for Diya. Despite the common belief in his community that education, especially for girls, was a waste of time, Shravan acknowledged that education would benefit his daughter, yet he still had concerns regarding school facilities and his daughter’s safety. Saroj invited Shravan to a community meeting being organized by Educate Girls, which he agreed to attend.

At the community meeting, Shravan learned about the role of the School Management Committee (SMC) in the school system and how he could advocate for better school infrastructure. SMC’s are 12-15 member councils composed of parents, teachers, village leaders and school leadership that are responsible for school governance and administration.  With the help of Educate Girls and Team Balika, these councils are able to prepare and execute School Improvement Plans and conduct school assessments that contribute towards ensuring better school infrastructure and facilities.

Shravan began to understand that encouraging attendance in school for Diya was building a better future not just for her but for their family and community as well. He re-enrolled his daughter in school and volunteered to talk to his neighbors and convince them to send their daughters to school. He was eventually elected to the SMC which, with the training and support received from Educate Girls, was able to get separate latrines for girls and boys installed, as well as access to clean drinking water in the school.

I see how well she is doing in school, and I am proud.” Shravan says of his daughter, now in 6th grade. “The principal at the school is a woman; she is treated with respect and we all call her Madam. My daughter is bright. That could be her one day! I am happy to be a part of the SMC. Thanks to Educate Girls, I know that I can make a difference for my daughter and the other children in the school.

Educate Girls works to mobilize communities to take a stand against gender disparity in schools and prioritize girls’ education.  Our comprehensive program model engages students, teachers, schools, communities and the government to ensure increased enrollment, retention and improved learning outcomes.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter or visit our website!


Cora Women: Join the Movement, Period.

Two years ago I had the privilege to live and work in Northeast India. Every day, I traveled to remote villages and sat with women and girls and listened to their stories. I’ve already shared how one woman named Naisban  created change for literacy, water and sanitation in her community. As I sat with women and girls, I learned a lot about the health and water-related illnesses that effect their every day lives.

Women and girls shared that during menstruation they are unable to participate in normal routines and activities.

Girls are kept from school due to lack of proper sanitation and hygienic facilities. In fact, in most rural areas girls use old cloths, bark or dirty rags during their periods. These methods can cause serious health related issues for both girls and women. Being unable to afford sanitary pads, girls will stay home from school during their period and quickly fall behind in their studies. In India, 12% of girls have access to sanitary pads and 56% have a poor understanding of menstrual health and hygiene. When girls reach puberty, 23% of them will drop out of school completely.

This is a major health and personal crisis for girls.

Upon returning to the United States, I began to think about my own menstrual health. I read articles about the harmful chemicals used to make feminine hygiene products. Toxic shock syndrome, harmful chemical exposure, fertility issues all can be linked to chemicals used in feminine products purchased by most Western women.

The average Western woman uses 11,000-16,000 menstrual management products throughout her lifetime. This equates to ten years of exposure to harmful chemicals. Armed with this knowledge, I knew I had to make a change. I began to think about investing in my own menstrual health and researching the availability of organic feminine products.

Then I discovered Cora Women.

Cora Women is a company with an unwavering commitment to girls who are disempowered and stigmatized during their periods. When you join the Month for Month giving circle, Cora Women provides a month’s supply of sustainable, locally made sanitary pads on your behalf to a girl in the developing world. Cora Women works with local partners to implement this project.

When you join the circle, Cora Women sends you a box of your pre-selected choice of organic tampons, liners and pads. Because periods come at all times during the month, your box is guaranteed to arrive on the very first day of the month. If that is not amazing enough, Cora Women includes chocolate, tea and special products to help you through your period. This month, my box included a special feminine wash for clothes and undergarments. Currently, Cora Women only ships to women who live in the United States.

I am joining the movement.

I love knowing that I can improve my own health while contributing to the sustainable health and education of another girl in India. I no longer have to worry about harmful chemicals polluting my body. However, I also know that I am helping a young girl receive the vital education she needs. This is a win, win situation! I am saying goodbye to harmful chemicals and hello to an organic solution that empowers girls around the world!

Want to learn more about Cora Women? Join the movement today!

Follow @CoraWomen and support their Catapult Campaign.

Join the conversation on Twitter all month long using #MenstruationMattersShare your ideas about menstruation in the #PeriodTalk Twitter chat on Tuesday, May 20th at 10amET.

My Journey

Post Written by: Meena Bhati, Field Communications Manager, Educate Girls 

My name is Meena Bhati.

I am recognized as Educate Girls’ oldest employee.

I was born into a Rajput family living in the Chanud Village of Pali district in Rajasthan, India. The Rajput community does not believe in educating a girl child. Many families there do not even wish to bring a girl into this world because she is seen as a liability. I was lucky that my parents sent me to school, but only until class 10. I pleaded to be allowed to continue my education but I was told to pay attention to household chores and prepare myself for marriage instead.

I stayed home looking after the house and my siblings, and eventually I was married.

Luckily, life had another chance waiting for me in the form of my husband. He was a teacher himself, and therefore understood the importance of education. He stood by my side much against the will of our parents and re-enrolled me in school. Today, I have completed a Bachelor’s degree in Education and post-graduate courses in Hindi & Rural Development.

I realized that in a society like mine, for a girl to be able to pursue her dreams, it is very important for her to have a strong support system. I was fortunate to have my husband and I wanted to help improve the lives of other girls like me.

I never aspired to be a leader or an activist.

I would have been satisfied to help five or ten girls. However, God had bigger plans for me. I was led to Educate Girls and thus destined to make a bigger difference.

I was inspired by Educate Girls’ ideology and methodology. It is an effective and organized model which helps improve the state of girl’s education in Rajasthan. The model focuses on ‘Enrollment’, ‘Retention’ & ‘Improved Learning Levels’ through community mobilization. The core element of this model are teams or community youth leaders who facilitate this cause in their villages. My first thought was, “Where would I find such individuals?” The Team Balika members must be educated, have the willingness to volunteer their time, and have permission from their families.

I stepped out on the mission with tremendous hope and found that many people wanted to join Educate Girls but feared disapproval from their parents and community members.

Some of my colleagues and I went door-to-door trying to convince parents of those who wanted to join us. We went to each house to identify girls who had never been enrolled in school, those who had dropped out of school, as well as child brides, so their families could be persuaded to prioritize their education. I remember doors being slammed in our faces on numerous occasions.

Eventually, parents began allowing their girls to come to school. Team Balika grew and I found myself training hundreds of members and school teachers in Creative Learning and Teaching techniques. I conducted Bal Sabhas (Girl’s Councils) and Life Skills Training programmes. Our team mobilized communities to form School Management Committees, giving community members a platform to influence the local education system.

As Educate Girls expanded, my role and responsibilities also grew. I started as a Field Coordinator and now operate as a Field Communications Manager. I initially wanted to help 5-10 girls and now I am doing my part to help countless children and empower thousands of Team Balika.

I am not alone.

There are thousands of others in Rajasthan who have shown tremendous courage, fought traditional norms and stepped out to be a part of the movement. My work with Educate Girls has given me confidence and an identity. I owe my success, personal development, and this meaningful journey to my husband and to Educate Girls.

Through the efforts of Team Balika, Educate Girls has enrolled over 59,000 girls in school since its inception in 2007. The creative teaching techniques used to improve learning levels have benefited about 600,000 children. Our goal is to improve access and quality of education for about 4 million children living in under-served communities in India by 2018 and work towards reducing gender inequality in education.

How a Vending Machine and a Burner Changed the Game for Girls In India

In current Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) programs in schools across India, a large focus has been placed on education and products for menstruation. In many regions around the world, a number of cultural taboos exist that are related to this particular female developmental process, creating challenges for water and sanitation organizations and businesses. Girls often drop out of school due to a lack of private facilities and various health issues associated with using unsanitary cloths. But at the Bhupatinagar Kanya school in West Bengal, Headmistress Mrs. Banashree Manna Das was delighted to share a success story.

During one of many visits to the school, Mr. Chandan Das, a local hygiene educator from a partnering organization, discovered that all the school’s sanitary boxes were locked, so girls had to ask for the key from a teacher to get what they needed. Recent reports indicate that up to 90 percent of rural adolescent girls in India use cloth during menstruation, and are shy about asking for sanitary napkins, even from a female teacher. To meet this challenge, Water For People created a pilot program in select girls’ high schools for a vending machine that dispenses sanitary napkins and a burner that disposes of them.

Photo c/o Water for People
Photo c/o Water for People

Over the past year, the school has constructed a sanitation facility for girls with complete privacy, a handwashing station, and enough toilets for its female and male students (separate of course). In addition, they have implemented hygiene education and health-awareness camps. “All of my students are very disciplined — they use water to flush, and never waste water,” says Mrs. Das.

Regular visits to Bhupatinagar Kanya school by a Water For People India employee found the school continuously in good order. Because of this, the school was selected to pilot the automatic sanitary napkin vending machine and auto-electric burner. Both the headmistress and the students were excited about this opportunity and ready to take on the added responsibility to make it a success.

Ankita Bhuniya, a student and active member of the school’s Water and Sanitation Committee, shyly told Water For People, “We only place a coin and get a napkin. We are very happy to get such a facility in our school. Now, I use only sanitary napkins, no more cloth. I also suggested it to my many friends who still have a taboo of not using sanitary napkins. Seeing the user-friendliness, zero dependency on teachers, we all only use sanitary napkins.”

The headmistress says a bigger response from the students has yet to be seen. Previously, the average usage of sanitary napkins was three to four packets a month. Since the vending machine was installed, that number has more than doubled. Mrs. Das says the main attraction is the user-friendliness of the machine: just drop a coin and come away with a sanitary napkin. Disposal is also easy — just open the cover of the burner, put the napkin in, and press the button.

“Now my students never skip their classes during those critical days,” Mrs. Das says, remembering a time before the pilot program launched, when students would just stand silently before her in class, and she had to learn that they wanted to go home while they were on their periods.

“Now having such a facility in our school, no one skips class for their menstrual period,” she says. “During regular monitoring visits, a local government official came to our school and was very impressed to see this facility. I will recommend to my colleagues in other schools to have such facilities. Big thanks to Water For People on behalf of my students for picking our school for this pilot.”

Join the conversation on Twitter all month long using #MenstruationMatters.

Share your ideas about menstruation in the #PeriodTalk Twitter chat on Tuesday, May 20th at 10amET.

Cover image c/o Water for People