This piece was co-authored by She’s the First Scholar Maheswari Raja (star of the STF documentary Magho), who convinced her family not only to allow her to go to school, but also to fight for her right to higher education.
Christen: One of the biggest questions facing the girls’ education movement is this: How do we get men on board? It seems they’re always standing in the way: keeping their daughters out of school, marrying girls who are much too young, upholding the traditional roles of women within their households. But men are not inherently evil; plenty of fathers around the world do indeed wish their daughters could be in class. Other times, cultural and social norms dictate family values, and girls’ futures along with them. So when Maheswari, a recent college graduate and STF Scholar from India, told me her story about how she was able to change the minds of her two older brothers on the importance of education, the two of us decided it was a story worth telling.
Maheswari: In rural India, the outlook on girls’ education is very traditional, due to seclusion, social influence, or even simply due to lack of funds. I began my own journey of education from the age of four when I joined Shanti Bhavan, a boarding school for children of the Dalit, or untouchable, caste. My mother and father broke stones in a quarry in Hosur, and couldn’t afford a quality education — but when they heard about this free school, they decided to send me. [ed. note: Technically, the school is scholarship-based, making it free to students’ families.]
Christen: Often, students’ families very much want to send their children to school, they just don’t have the funds to do it. But as girls hit puberty, social pressures begin to mount. In rural Indian culture, especially among the Dalit caste, a woman is still expected to tend hearth and house, and she will eventually leave home to live with her husband’s extended family — making her own economic earning potential practically useless to her family. As children get older, it’s then economically wise to send the boys to school and have girls help at home. So as Maheswari grew older, her community started speaking up.
Maheswari: “Why study? Why educate a girl when her job is to raise a family? What’s the point of paying so much money on education when that girl is going to be married away? What’s the point?” These questions never ceased to come from my village and even my brothers. They’re the same questions every village asks when someone sends their girl to school for more than a few years.
I come from a family of four: two older brothers and a mother (my father passed away when I was 13). I began school at the age of four, though not because my parents believed particularly in the power of education. However, my mother believed that by sending me to Shanti Bhavan, at least one of her children would be provided with food and shelter every day.
In the beginning there were a lot of doubts and questions on how my mother could put me in a boarding school so far away. But soon after starting, I started to speak English and to write it as well. They saw a complete change right in front of their eyes.
Christen: A few weeks ago, I stumbled on a piece about Razia Jan, a woman who opened a girls’ school in rural Afghanistan. In the first week of school, each student learned to write her father’s name — and just like that, Razia and her school won over a community.
Or, okay, maybe not just like that, because social change is a long and complex process. But it certainly seems to have helped quite a bit. It’s why it’s so crucial to involve parents and community members in discussions and programs related to their children’s schooling. The proof of value for education can often take a long time, but when families do see it, it alters everything.
Maheswari: The questions began to change. “What are you studying? What do you want to become after studying? How many more years will it take to achieve this?” My family saw that I was outspoken, always questioning, asking why they were making certain decisions and challenging tradition. I became more outspoken. It was difficult for them at first, I think, because they weren’t used to a girl with a loud voice. But as the years went by my voice and opinions mattered. My family began to listen to what I had to say.
At graduation, my entire family showed up to watch me receive my diploma, and when I went to college, supported by Shanti Bhavan and She’s the First, they were there cheering me on every step of the way. They had realized that I would never be like the other village girls, and they were proud of my education, even when others asked why I was not yet married. My mother even jokes, saying that “even if the men of the house don’t have brains, at least the girls do!” — meaning, of course, herself and me.
Christen: Last year, in her last year of undergraduate studies, Maheswari told me that she wanted to eventually complete a master’s degree in science. None of her peers have yet had the opportunity to go to grad school, and it’s extremely rare even today that those in the dalit caste are able to earn a post-graduate degree. But she wants to be a geneticist, and there are very few available jobs in the science field open to those with only a bachelor’s degree. Neither She’s the First nor Shanti Bhavan have scholarships for graduate-level schooling, and so Maheswari knew she had to join the workforce for a few years first. Besides, her family was depending on her to help lift them out of poverty. It’s a challenge that many girls face much earlier in life: When you’re old enough to work and to bring in income, it’s tempting to take the immediate paycheck than to invest in education, especially if you have to watch your family suffer around you.
Maheswari: I ended up getting a customer service job at TESCO, a technology company, even though it didn’t relate in any way to science or to my degree. It was a good job, and it would help me support my family. I explained my decision to my two brothers — and was surprised when they both objected and said that they will help me pay and I should keep studying. They even explained that I am the first one to get an education in my family and that should not go to waste by doing something not related to what I studied. I heard many of my own words that I had used throughout the years coming out of their mouths: I should study now so that I can make a difference later; education is the only way to bring our family out of poverty; and that is my goal, my dream — I should not ever give up on it.
I hesitated as I knew it would be costly and difficult to pay — no one in my family makes a good enough income to pay for this each semester. But they told me to focus and to get my degree, and in the meantime, they’ve borrowed tuition money from family, friends, and other village members in order to support me.
I decided to study. I decided that if this opportunity is knocking at my door, why not grab it? I was always taught to make the best of what you’ve got, and I know that as time passes I will be able to change not only my life, but also the life of my entire family. Now, I have just two years left until that becomes a reality — and all because they, too, believe in the power of education.