When Covid closed down Jaipur’s teeming streets, Harmendra Singh, like many other daily wage laborers, panicked. How would he feed his family of six? For Harmendra, a blacksmith who makes INR 300.00 per day and lives in Jaipur’s Dhoongri slum, the shutdown in India was particularly brutal–he needed his income for his family’s basic daily survival. The government took its time stepping in to fill the gap created by a cratering of daily wage incomes, and it was left to local charities to help desperate people like Harmender and his family.
The charity that came to his rescue was Edu-GIRLS, whose school his daughter, Riya Kaur, and her younger sister were enrolled in. Like other charities across India, the suddenness of the Corvid lockdown transformed Edu-GIRLS higher mission goals of educating and mentoring girls living in some of India’s poorest slums into more immediate, lifesaving ones.
“We adapted fast,” says Anand Seth, who founded the non-profit in Washington DC, in 2012. (Since then, it has expanded out of Jaipur and taken its successful model of educating slum children to three other locations–Bengaluru in India, Saraswati in Nepal and Kohat in Pakistan).
“From the first day of the lockdown we gathered basic rations and made packets of essentials which included atta, dal, rice, oil, salt, sugar, chai, etc. and distributed them. The girls were put in charge of identifying families in need, and they went around the slum delivering supplies. If there could be a silver lining to something as awful as Covid, it was the way the girls began to be viewed. They were the source of the family’s survival because of their enrollment in our school, and they’ve become a prime asset for their community.
As of May 2020, Edu-GIRLS has provided 600,000 meals to 1000 families.
“We haven’t slowed down,” says Shubhra Garg, the Secretary/Treasurer at Edu-GIRLS, and a hands-on volunteer who communicates regularly with Edu-GIRLS partner school, Vimukti, in Jaipur. “We’ve innovated.”
“In the beginning of the Pandemic we got the girls to make and distribute masks. They made over 4000, with donated cloth. After basic needs like food were provided for, our next emphasis was how to make sure educational time wasn’t lost. The girls had no access to laptops or computers at home and the staff had to innovate to provide virtual learning to them. A teach- by phone- program was initiated during the shutdown––students had to borrow their parents’ smartphones for three hours every day and teachers posted lessons and activities and homework which they were accountable for. This has been quite successful.”
Another consequence of the lockdown has been the urgency to push the digital learning program into high gear. Edu-GIRLS had already partnered with Khan Academy and the digital education provider BYGU to bring online learning to its upper grades. It now aims to push for a faster evolution to digital teaching for its lower school as well and has begun a Facebook campaign to raise funds towards that goal.
Chatting with the team of Edu-GIRLS board members and volunteers in Washington DC, I see that they haven’t lost any of their pre-pandemic enthusiasm for continuing fundraising and expanding programs, even if they can’t make the supportive visits to the schools in India which used to be a regular feature before COVID. They have gone into high gear with virtual and paper mail alternatives for communicating with the Edu-GIRLS family, and are innovating new formats for fundraising drives.
“We were not sure what to expect from our donors when faced with a highly unusual catastrophe like Covid. In fact, we’ve had a surge of interest from our donors—many new ones have stepped forward after seeing the havoc Covid is wrecking on the poor in India. I think the fact that we kept donors extremely well informed throughout of how we were continuing to serve the slum community and on how we had innovated during the Pandemic, contributed to their support. We raised almost 30,000.00 immediately for Covid relief from 100 supporters,” says Anand.
Edu-GIRLS goals for 2023 include educating 1450 girls with a 100% pass rate and placing at least 110 in jobs which will double their family’s income.
“We feel vested in these girls,” adds Sangeeta Agarwal, who contributes her skills as a filmmaker towards designing the organization’s media offerings
“We support them from primary school to higher education and, eventually, financial independence. What’s the point of all that education if the girl can’t become financially self-sufficient? So, it’s a particularly satisfying connection from a volunteer point of view because we follow the same children for their whole educational life and beyond. We look at all the factors that might limit their access to education—transportation, family attitudes, even basic hygiene, etc.”
“Yes, even basic hygiene can be an obstacle to a girl’s education,” Sangeeta says in response to my surprised expression.
“Many girls drop out of school when their periods start because they can’t afford sanitary pads and they’re ashamed.”
Edu-GIRLS has adopted a Ten-Mantra program that addresses all the invisible obstacles to a girl’s education like the monthly menstruation cycle and safe transportation to school. There are 10 things they focus on as goals—these include a free, quality, English curriculum, with short school days and a long school year, safe transportation to and from school for the girls, nutrition health and hygiene training, community outreach, exposure to science and math, vocational and college scholarships and performance incentives.
Priti Jain, who organizes outdoor walkathons for fundraising, is currently working on the next one. “I was attracted to the charity by their focus on girls’ education,” says Priti, whose Facebook tagline says, ‘If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.’
“At least walking is one fundraiser which will involve time away from a screen. Since we must emphasize safety, we are looking into holding a virtual walk-a-thon. Participants walk on their own at an assigned time and post their miles and contributions online.”
The team is all really pleased with how the girls have risen to the crisis in their communities and have made masks and distributed food while mentoring and teaching the younger children, whether it’s proper COVID hygiene or other lessons.
“They are the true heroes of their community,” Shubhra concludes.
Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents
Image credit: EDU-GIRLS
Riya Kaur (10) lives in the Jhalana Doongri slums, Jaipur. and is a class IV student.