Recently my husband and I travelled to India to visit our 19 year old daughter who was working at a school in southern India among children and teens from leprosy colonies and poor villages. Our daughter had visited India as a volunteer with Rising Star Outreach in February of 2013, had fallen in love with the children she worked with and had decided to stay long term.
Education for girls was on my mind as we journeyed to see her, both because she had decided that higher education was not for her, and because of the lofty goals that Rising Star Outreach's Peery Matriculation School has for its girls--especially in light of the evolving view of women in India.
Women in India have traditionally been considered citizens of low importance, with few rights and protections. Violence against women has been widespread and prevalent. Ultrasound technology is illegal in India for pregnant women because of the practice of gender selection through illegal abortion.
Law makers in India are responding to the increasing world awareness of the inequalities under which Indian women subsist--with legislation such as tighter sexual assault laws, new company law which mandates at least one woman serving on the board of listed companies, and national observance of the International Day of the Girl Child.
In northern India women seem to have broken free of some of the more restrictive traditions, but in the south the women still adhere to the old ways, such as arranged marriages for young teenagers, wearing the sari from the day they are married and being expected to perform hard physical labor. The girls attending the Peery Matriculation School hail from even more depressed circumstances; in the caste system they are at the bottom--untouchable because of the taint of leprosy in their families. Without intervention their fate is most likely a life of field work and repression.
The mission of Rising Star Outreach is to help those affected by leprosy, through medical care, micro lending (primarily to the women) and education. An educated young woman or man--especially if proficient in English and computer skills-- becomes employable, and can break the curse of the leprosy stigma. The girls, who because of their traditional status have even worse prospects than the boys, are given special attention in their schooling at the Peery School.
Last year there were five girls who graduated from the 10th standard, and all did well enough on their state testing to matriculate to one of the very best Indian schools at the junior college level. It was a true triumph for the Peery School, and a fulfillment of the vision of Rising Star. My husband and I were buoyed by the efforts being made both at Rising Star and throughout India to raise women's situations and aspirations.
And my daughter who didn't want to continue with her education? Something seemed to click when she saw the great sacrifices the children and their families (not to mention Rising Star volunteers) make in order to make sure that the children are educated: she is now enrolled in college and working toward a degree in early childhood education. Her goal is to enhance education for girls and boys around the world.