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I Start an Afterschool Program for Girls

Miss the previous update? Read it here.

Now that my work with the Me 2 We group is mostly complete and after returning fresh to the leprosy community after a month of traveling and speaking in the US, I had the unexpected inspiration to start an afterschool program just for girls.

Out of all the programs I’ve helped launch over the past few years, this one has been cause for the most raised eyebrows and questions about what exactly it is I’m doing. The concern has to do with the “low” position females typically hold in Indian society and the thought, "Why invest in people who are just going to grow up to cook, clean, and take care of the kids?"

But I feel very strongly about this program, especially after noticing how dedicated many of the girls are to their education (the older ones, in particular, who have dreams of going to college) and the culturally-embedded lack of respect they tend to receive.

As an example of this last point, consider that the the Ministry of Women and Child Development had to outlaw the practice of determining the sex of children because of the extraordinary amount of girls that are aborted in India. That's how much boys are favored.

Women Are Our Future

Though the culture's attitude toward women is changing, it is still typical for girls growing up in India to be seen as “lesser than” their male counterparts. For the most part, they are raised to be housewives—never mind if you feel you have a special purpose outside of this socially-enforced fate. Household service is considered a woman's non-negotiable duty.

As much as I think this is not a totally fair deal, with a resounding no would I answer the question of whether or not there is any strand in me that is looking to disrupt this cultural paradigm out of personal politics. I know plenty of women here who are very happy in this role (and I also know some who are not).

As I was moved sincerely upon witnessing the plight of a young boy with Cerebral Palsy the other year, my heart moves through and through at the tough situation here for girls and women. I’m moved to demonstrate there is at least one male in the universe who does not view girls and women as weak and unworthy, and who is willing to do something special just for them because they deserve it.

I truly believe if there is to be a future for humankind, then women need to be in the leadership roles. With their natural compassion, selflessness, and direct connection to nature, they tend to make sound, sustainable, and just decisions for the good of all.

With a resounding yes would I answer the question of whether or not this understanding of the inherent strength of women formed a significant piece of the philosophical foundation of the program.

Our Activities

We have about three months together and the general idea is to encourage the girls to follow their dreams and be their best selves. I’ll be working with a co-teacher and translator, Rakhi, and together we’ll schedule an assortment of activities each week such as:

  • Yoga and meditation
  • Community service
  • Games
  • Time with guests
  • Field trips
  • Leadership exercises
  • Seminars

To help make what we’re doing a little more accessible to the parents and the community and because it’s also a need, time will also be given for help with homework, as well as English tutoring.

We'll be meeting Monday - Friday at 3pm for 60 minutes.

   Voting yes to participate in the program.

Voting yes to participate in the program.

During our first meeting, I explained the idea for the program to everybody and said, "Participation is optional but if you do commit, Rakhi and I expected daily participation for the next three months." I asked for a show of hands of who was prepared to commit to the class. Each raised their hand.

After we wrapped up this preliminary meeting, Rakhi and I went door-to-door to explain the program to the parents for their consent and blessing. After some light negotiation and extra explanation, all the parents ended up giving their permission.

Realize, all our girls have strict household duties and time in this class is time away from the house, which places an extra burden on the mom. Receiving this permission (which, admittedly, surprised me given how controversial what we're doing is) was a much bigger deal than it might sound.

Just do your job, then let go.
— Lao Tzu

I'm not sure where this program will lead us in the end. For me, as with similar programs I've done like this, it’s about bringing a dynamic group together in a caring spirit, creating a strong bonding experience, expanding comfort zones (mine included), and having fun.

Then letting the rest go. Good results tend to happen on their own this way.

Meet Our Girls

 
 

17 members are in the class, ages ranging from 10 to 17.

All the girls are enrolled in school and are, in my opinion, among the community’s brightest youth. Their family members would be considered financially poor, though the poverty is not extreme. Some have parents who beg and all have relatives with the leprosy disease.

I was asked why I left boys out. It's a fair question.

One of my (not public) answers is that boys are going to be favored their entire life. We can make a small exception here and do something just for the girls. More practically, this community is deficient in boys who have the maturity to participate seriously in a program like this.

Measuring Progress

I’m not a fan of measuring results, as it can make what you're doing seem clinical and too formal. Still, I was inspired to create a questionnaire to get a baseline measure of the girls' self-esteem, confidence, and general outlook on life.

Here's the questionnaire, feel free to use and adapt it however you wish.

Rate the following on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the most):

  1. I am valuable
  2. I have positive skills and abilities
  3. I can do things as well as others
  4. I appreciate nature
  5. I believe in my dream
  6. I enjoy the service of people or seva
  7. I am able to improve my circumstances
  8. I fight back after being insulted
  9. My future looks positive
  10. I have a special purpose
  11. I love and respect my mother
  12. I conserve resources like water, electricity, food
  13. I am comfortable speaking to a group of people
  14. My daily level of happiness

The most deficient areas were #5 (I believe in my dream), #7 (I am able to improve my circumstances), and #12 (I conserve resources).

Four of the students had exceedingly low responses to #9 (My future looks positive) and #14 (My daily level of happiness), which suggests some trouble at home. I’m not quite sure what we’re going to do about that, but something. Perhaps some special sits just with this group, perhaps we’ll visit the homes and see what's going on.

I do know some of the girls have a troubled home situation, I was told so and have seen it myself. Fathers who drink and gamble. Mothers who have leprosy and beg. Financial hardships.

A Few Observations After Week 1

   Sandals lined up neatly on a rainy day class.

Sandals lined up neatly on a rainy day class.

After our first week together, I, self-consciously, got to wondering whether or not the girls were enjoying themselves and feeling like the time they were spending was worthwhile. After all, they are taking valuable time away from the house and their responsibilities.

My first observation is that the answer to this question is definitely yes. Every day, each showed up at 2:50pm on the dot, before our official start at 3pm. Some even wanted to start early and would come early to help me clean up the room. Saturday for us is a day off, yet still some would approach me and say, tuition chalu hai (let's start tuition).

Thursday is our yoga and meditation day and also when everybody gets a freshly cooked snack, as a celebration of the week that’s about to conclude.

It was a bit of a struggle getting everybody through the yoga routine without talking and giggling. But, when we sat down for a little meditation after, you could feel the impact of it. The silence. The peace. And when we sang our sarve dharma (all religions) prayer, they were beautifully united as if in a choir, singing with such loving bhaav (feeling/spirit). I have good feelings about this part of the program.

There is also something about the power of an established group. It creates a connection among the members, even when you are not in session. Now, when I see the girls out in the community, I can sense the spirit of the program in operation and, already, they seem more confident and sure of themselves.

Service to Mother

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I would not shy away from the question of whether or not I favor girls and women with my programs. The answer is yes, for a number of reasons.

They are more likely than men to adopt positive values and habits and work towards improving the quality of their life and community. This point has actually been researched and documented in the microfinance world. Even TED speaker and founder of the Barefoot College, Bunker Roy, has said, "Train a grandmother and you can change the world" for this reason.

Being raised by a single mother surely has something to do with it.

Plus, I sympathize with how poorly women have been treated by men throughout history.

When I explained all of this to the girls during one of our sessions and that I didn’t listen to those people who said I shouldn’t start a program, “just for girls,” they all said enthusiastically, “Thank youuu Krishnaaa bhaiii” (thank you Krishna brother)!

This is going to be great.

Continue to next update about this program.