Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

"Voices of Change": Surviving in the Shadows Part III

January 22, 2012

Editor's Note: Over the next few days, in our "Voices of Change": A Trip Through Dharavi blog series, we'll introduce you to one of the most unique living settlements in the world: Dharavi. Home to almost one million people, living in one square mile in Mumbai, India, Dharavi is a slum challenged by immense problems. But it is also home to hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children filled with hope and strength. In November 2011, a group of 11 "Young Global Leaders" had the chance to visit Dharavi with Melanie Walker, Deputy Director for Global Development Special Initiatives at the foundation. And please share your comments, thoughts and experiences with us!

Twenty dollars—the cost of a movie and popcorn in New York City—was all she needed to complete her education. Those thousand or so rupees, though, were hard to come by for a young girl from Mulund West, a suburban slum area of Mumbai.

Now, 24-year-old Aarti Naik considers herself a “slum-based change maker” and has been selected to be a part of the new Global Shapers Community, a group of individuals between 20 and 30 years old chosen by the World Economic Forum for their great potential for future leadership roles in society. Aarti is an example of The Girl Effect—the unique potential of 600 million girls in developing countries to reinvest their knowledge and income back into their family and community to end poverty for themselves and the world.

“Four years ago I was a school dropout girl. My parents insisted that I stay at home due to our poor condition. I strongly wanted to continue my education so I decided to work at home and learn. It was a very hard time for me,” Aarti explained. “Today, I am here only because of education. It has changed my life. So my mission is to build the capacity of other slum girls so they can continue in school and in the future get good opportunities to have a quality life,” she added.


Education can be a path to freedom.

Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy

In 2008, a college friend gave Aarti information about Ashoka’s Youth Venture Changemaker Fellowship. It gave her the courage and support to create SAKHI for Girls Education, a social enterprise that seeks to build the capacity and basic literacy skills of slum girls, ages 6 to 13. Initially, she encountered a lot of resistance—not from the girls, but from the adults. The parents did not want to send the girls to daily classes and Aarti’s father did not want her to teach the girls in their small home. After three months of struggling, the enrollment increased from 6 to 23 girls.

“I always had the feeling that somebody should be my close friend who can support and guide me for education, but there was no one for I strongly felt this should not happen with my slum girls,” Aarti shared. “Sakhi” means “a female friend.”

Being a girl in some places of the world is like choosing the short end of the proverbial stick. The chance of a quality education is slim. Education may be free, but the price to show up is not, and the learning barriers are steep. As Aarti explained, “My father couldn't afford the fees and additional books. I didn't participate in school trips, and my home is not a comfortable place to study.” Aarti wanted to go to the private English Meridian College but the fees were too high. She is now studying for a B.A. in Sociology at the Open University.

Out of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth, 70 percent are girls. An adolescent girl is often marginalized. Less than two cents of every international development dollar is directed to her. She is also likely to be a child bride and be exposed to HIV/AIDS. A survey in India found that girls who married before age 18 were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands as girls who married later. Without an education, many end up as bar girls or home-based sex workers.

To be a slum girl in India is indeed bleak. As you step into the maze of dark alleyways, you pass by many deferred dreams. The Oscar-winning rags-to-riches movie Slumdog Millionaire, which was shot on the streets of Mumbai, gave many locals hope. However, the reality is that too few are able to leave. It is the classic cycle of intergenerational poverty.

As Aarti has demonstrated, however, education can be a path to freedom. The girls in Aarti’s program speak more confidently in English and save money—one rupee per day. That is the beginning of The Girl Effect. According to the United Nations Population Fund, when a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children. Additional studies show that an extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 25 percent. When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to 30 to 40 percent for a man.

Still living in the community she serves, Aarti understands the challenges first-hand and has become a beacon of light for the girls. She explained, “The girls are very close to me. I’m like a big sister. I understand their problems so they openly talk to me. They are very inspired.” Aarti has also organized a door-to-door library, where she visits approximately 100 homes and delivers a new book each week.

Aarti epitomizes the essence of the Indian people: determined, resilient, and resourceful. Her personal mantra: “Nothing stops me and the Mumbai spirit!” Her advice to others: “Don’t give up on your dreams. Everything is possible.” 

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