Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

In India, Educating Girls is Key to Health

January 14, 2013

Last month in India, I found inspiration in three girls, their mother and supportive father who are defying all kinds of barriers to improve their lives. Theirs is a story of determination, sacrifices, and not being afraid to be outliers. And it’s absolutely amazing. A critical part of my job is to visit some of the world’s poorest villages and communities, where I have the opportunity to refocus, re-energize, and invariably, be inspired. This is what happened.

The village of Basanthkheda in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India is very poor with a low-caste society. Due to their social exclusion, they have no health clinics or schools and don’t even receive community services from frontline health workers, who come from higher-caste communities and therefore do not reach “down” to them. Village members survive as they always have, with little opportunity to improve their lives.

One family in this village is changing that by making sure their three youngest daughters (out of six children) get an education. Ramvati, the girls’ mother, got her inspiration from recognizing that education could be a way to a better life for her children, a belief that was inspired and validated by her daughters—Renu, Reena, and Rinki—and endorsed by her husband.

Deciding to send our children to school sounds like a no-brainer, to most of us. In this situation, it’s not an easy decision at all.

Ramvati first had to convince her husband to let their daughters attend school—that alone is a difficult task in a rural village where subsistence farming is the norm and girls simply don’t get an education. Her husband first consented to enroll Reena in school because of a government scheme that allowed a family sending a girl to school to get a free bicycle and a certain amount of money. Ramvati's family never saw the bicycle or the money.

 The family went into debt to ensure that their girls were able to study.

While that was only the beginning of their challenges, the hope that was borne helped them persevere. The family went into debt to ensure that their girls were able to study. And the girls have to travel 20 kilometers each way to get to the school in the next village over, a journey that adds significant expense, time, and safety issues.

The most amazing part to me? These girls are the only three people from the entire village that are going to school. Out of the several hundred people in this village, only these three determined young women are changing the social norms of their community in regards to education.

Some people in the village may think that this family is crazy to allow the girls to study. They may be thinking that the family  is breaking with tradition, that a girl does not need education, that an educated girl will be more difficult to marry off, that it is a waste of money, and a burden on the family and thus on the community.

But on the other hand, there are likely those people who recognize that an education will provide options that Renu, Reena and Rinki would not have otherwise for economic opportunities, better health and even longer lives. I saw the inspiration and aspiration in the eyes of many other village members who gathered as we talked about their determination to gain new opportunities through education.

And so in this sense, Ramvati is crazy—she is doing something out of the norm. But she is a positive deviant, doing something no one else would consider because it is good for her daughters, for her family, and yes, even for the village.

I went to the village to talk about health, but I found that we can’t talk about health on its own. It’s intertwined with every other part of life—education, income generation, transportation, cultural norms, a village caste. And I was inspired by these girls who, with a little opportunity and a lot of willpower, are becoming change agents for their community and are inspiring others.

Renu is now in the first year of college working towards her Bachelor degree, interested in politics. Reena is in high school and wants to be a teacher. And Rinki, the youngest, is just starting 8th grade; she’s not sure what she wants to be when she grows up. But, thanks to the determination of her mother, father and sisters, she has some time and a lot of opportunity to dream of the person she someday will become.

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