India has not been a good mother to its girls—but one small village is trying to make amends to its grandmothers.
The country has long been a hotbed for sex-selective abortion—specifically female foeticide. Fewer girls than boys are enrolled in school. The male literacy rate was 83% while women logged just 67%. Conservative and misogynistic attitudes have given rise to a tradition of domesticating girls. Other barriers to attending school include unsafe travel routes and lack of separate or functioning toilets for girls.
To break the gendered approach to education and to be more inclusive of girls, prime minister Narendra Modi launched the Beti bachao, beti padhao (save the girl child, educate the girl child) initiative. In 2009, India enacted the Right to Education Act to give poor and disadvantaged children the right to free and compulsory education until the age of 14.
While efforts are being made to uplift girls, there are generations of women whose lives have been a series of missed opportunities. Elderly women are plagued by “low literacy, low participation in paid employment, poor access to assets and poor nutrition,” according to an academic paper by Dr Nidhi Gupta of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Many of them could not afford to attend school. Others were married off at a young age. (Even though the legal age for marriage for women in India is 18, Unicef found that, even today, nearly half are married earlier.)
A small village in Maharashtra now offers this forgotten group of seniors a shot at formal education.
The Aajibaichi Shala, or grandmothers’ school, in the village of Phangane is said to be the first in India for elderly women, Reuters reports. The initiative was pioneered by 45-year-old Yogendra Bangar, a local teacher, and the Motiram Charitable Trust. The charity has provided the women with their outfits, school bags, slates and chalk pencils, as well as blackboards. It was set up in March 2016, for International Women’s Day. The first classes were conducted at the home of 30-year-old Sheetal More, the only teacher at the time.
After 2pm every afternoon for six days of the week, women 60 and older arrive for the classes in matching uniforms—fuchsia sarees—with childlike-zeal. They learn to read the Marathi alphabet, count numbers and write.
“These women did not have the opportunity to study then they were young,” Bangar told Reuters. “It’s not as if they want to go to college or work in an office now. But they do want to be able to read and write, and sign their names, like everyone else in their families.”