Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Educating Girls

Girls and boys line up for registration
It is our policy in Project Mala schools to admit, as far as possible, equal numbers of boys and girls. This is not difficult to achieve in Guria, where there is a large population and, though rural, the communities are strung out along the GT Road and therefore more sophisticated than the villages in the hinterland. The villagers of Guria and its environs are more likely to value the education of girls; they see around them educated women working in professional jobs and can imagine one day that their daughters might do the same. Although marriage and family is still the goal for Guria girls, parents are increasingly happy for them to delay until they have finished their schooling, recognising that an educated girl has more to offer a prospective marriage partner as a wife and mother who will be able to guide her own children as well as bring an income into the household.
Although boys still tend to do better academically, and girls are still taken from their studies to do household tasks, at registration each year we see huge numbers of bright and eager girls brought by their parents who hope that they will gain entry to our Primary department.

It is a very different matter in some of our other Primary schools, in particular Turkahan, Hasra and Mujehra. In these schools the combination of rural isolation, very conservative communities and widespread illiteracy has produced a marked inequality between the prospects of boys and girls. However hard we try, it seems, by the end of Primary school girls are lagging behind their brothers academically, and although there are individual girls who do very well, far fewer of them pass the entrance exam into Middle school. What can be going wrong? Surely once they enter our Primary schools all girls should be able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by education and shine equally with the boys? We know very well that they are born with equal capacities, so what is happening in their early years that renders so many of them already at the age of six lacking in the ability to learn and flourish?
Children and parents gather on registration day

In February this year I was present at the registration days in several of our rural Primary schools and it was then that the full extent of the problem really hit me. On registration day the children come to the school to register their names and have a short entrance interview to decide whether they will benefit from our fairly intensive primary education system (we complete the five years of primary school in three years). At each school there were far more boys brought for registration than girls, sometimes twice as many. What is more, the boys were generally accompanied by a male relative - father, grandfather, uncle - or sometimes all three. Boys were smartly dressed and brushed for the occasion; clearly their educational future was of concern to their families. Many of the girls, however, had come alone to registration, or with one woman acting as chaperone for several girls at once. A large proportion of the girls were shabbily dressed, unwashed and apparently uncared for but what was much more worrying was their performance at interview. Although the teachers interviewing prospective pupils ask children to read, to identify numbers and letters and a little general knowledge - many of the children who come to register with us have already completed one or two years at government Primary school - we are well aware that some children will have had no education at all, or any guidance at home. These children are given simple non-verbal reasoning tests, asked questions that require only an open and curious mind, and judged on the native intelligence they display when confronted with new challenges. Teachers put the children they interview into categories indicating their perceived ability and when we draw up the class lists we try to take as many children as possible from the upper bands, as far as is commensurate with adhering to our other goals; to educate an equal number of boys and girls and to give priority to children from the poorest families.

When we draw up the lists there are usually plenty of boys who were marked A or B at interview and it is fairly easy to fill half the class. Sadly almost no girls figure in the top academic band, and very few even in the second. In order to have enough girls in the class we have to choose the majority from those who do not appear, at interview, to show the requisite ability to cope with an accelerated primary curriculum.
Once they start at school, many of these girls fall very quickly behind the rest of the class. Although we give them extra help and remedial teaching, they lack confidence and are slow to grasp those basics of Hindi and maths needed to move ahead with the rest of the class. It seems as if they have not been given the same start in life as the boys and lack some of the basic building blocks with which to create new learning. And indeed, there is a marked difference in the upbringing of little boys and girls in the traditional rural village. If there is an errand to be run a boy is more likely to be chosen. Male infants accompany their fathers to market and are shown off, their skills praised, questions asked and answered. They see a wider slice of life, are encouraged to be curious and adventurous. Girls are kept mostly at home, engaged in domestic tasks and childcare. Their mothers, aunts and grandmothers often have no experience of life outside the village and are unable to answer questions about the world and it seems possible that many little girls don't receive anything like the same stimulation and encouragement as their brothers.

It was with this possibility in mind that we came up with the idea of starting a pre-school group, for girls only.

To be continued.............................

Sunday, 16 December 2012

A new video for Project Mala

Earlier this year two talented film makers and photographers, Phil James and David Francis from Shadowplay, a creative design studio based in Cheltenham, kindly agreed to spend a week with us filming in and around the Project Mala schools.

On their return to the UK they produced a beautiful video montage of footage shot in the schools and surrounding villages and in nearby Varanasi, and entered it into the Association of Photography awards where it was chosen as one of the top three videos in the Moving Image section.

Now Shadowplay has also given us the gift of a video showing the work that Project Mala is doing to educate children in the poor rural communities in which our schools are based. This video is an excellent introduction to our schools and our children. and we are very pleased with it.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

A Light to Study By

Anju is a senior pupil at Project Mala school Guria. A shy girl, she is unwilling to push herself forward in school and so I had not had many opportunities to get to know her well. In September, however, when I visited the schools I noticed that Anju was performing particularly well in class, consistently gaining marks in the top 20%. I was particularly impressed when I learned that Anju is one of the pupils who has no electricity at home and therefore cannot study after dark. As a girl, and the eldest of several sisters, she is responsible for helping her mother with domestic chores before and after school and as a result she and her sister, who is in the Middle school, often find that they are unable to revise important school work, complete their homework or study for exams. The only light available to the family is from one kerosene lantern and, as you can see, it does not give enough light to read by.

Studying by the light of a kerosene lamp

In spite of this, both sisters are doing very well at school, but it is a constant battle for them to keep on top of their work.

We had been experimenting with a type of solar powered lantern that we thought might benefit children without electricity. Indeed, so unreliable is the power supply in rural Uttar Pradesh that even homes which have a power supply frequently find themselves without electricity for days at a time and, if they can afford it, rely on battery powered lanterns which they recharge when they do have electricity. So we feel that most of the children in our schools would benefit from solar powered lamps.

 After some research we found what we consider to be the perfect reading lamp, from an interesting company, Observing i. This is a venture that aims to bring practical, affordable solar power solutions to the villages of India and their lighting systems are extremely well thought out. The lamp we have chosen is a good example. While other lanterns shine out horizontally, making it difficult to focus the light on your work, the lamp from Observing i is brilliantly constructed on a stand, with a round headlamp that can be rotated to shine just where it is needed. The light is bright and clear so that the children can study without straining their eyes.
Anju with the new solar light

The headlamp can be detached from the stand and hung up by its strap to give a light anywhere in the house, for cooking or other household tasks as well. The elastic strap is also designed so that the lamp can be worn on the arm or wrist so that it will light your path at night (to the field latrines, for example, or to tend the animals). It is equally useful to alert traffic when the children are walking beside the road and it can be put on a bicycle and used as a cycle lamp.

Anju was one of the first pupils to be given one of the new solar powered lamps and in this video you can see what a difference it has made to her studies.

We have given out 15 lamps to the pupils we feel need and deserve them most, but we hope in future to be able to provide every senior and Middle school pupil with a lamp. Being able to study after school doesn't just improve the academic standards of a single child; the entire class benefits when every pupil is able to keep up with their peers.

There are other benefits though. With solar lamps, a family without electricity is no longer reliant on expensive, dangerous kerosene lamps. Apart from the effect of fumes on the inhabitants of small mud huts, kerosene lamps often cause fires, and of course affect the environment too.

For a donation of £25 you can buy a lamp for a Project Mala pupil.  Click here  to donate and shine a light for a pupil like Anju.