Heifer India's recent work focuses on girls' education and women's empowerment. Turns out, once asked, Indian girls have a lot to say about what education and changing views mean to them.

Story and photos by Maggie Carroll, World Ark contributor

Aging India
Lakshmi, 13, smiles as she details how getting an education has provided her with opportunities she never thought she'd have.

BIKANER, India
 —Bouncing along a bumpy desert road as we made our way to Bikaner, India, I thought back to a conversation I had with my 13-year old sister a few months earlier.

“How was school today?” I asked.
“Fine,” she said.
“OK. Learn anything new?”
“Just the usual,” she replied.

At the time, that conversation hadn’t struck me as atypical. We exchanged niceties about her school day then moved on to what we believed qualified as more interesting conversation.

But as I traveled for hours to a small village so that I could meet with several young girls about their lives and education system, the conversation with my sister suddenly meant so much more. Is education such an ingrained part of everyday life that I was satisfied with “fine” and “usual” as descriptive responses? Do we take school for granted in the Western world?

Nearly the entire village greeted us. Smiles and chatter surrounded our Heifer India group as we made our way to the meeting area. A village member guided us to our seats, a carefully arranged tapestry on the clean, dirt floor.

I looked around. Where were all of the children?

I soon learned that many of the girls and boys were still in school and was asked if I wouldn’t mind waiting for them. As the translator, Deepika, and I got comfortable, several of the women from the local selfhelp group sat down with us for a chat. “You know,” one of them began, “if you had come a few years ago this would be different. We didn’t use to send our girls to school.”

I learned from the group that Heifer’s work over the past few years has focused on girls’ education and women’s empowerment. The women admitted that at first they thought sending their girls to school would be a waste of time. The time would be better spent cooking, cleaning and working around the home. Since working on their own empowerment and confidence, the mothers of these girls now understand the importance of education for all of their children.

As I sipped chai and fumbled for words in my limited Hindi vocabulary, Deepika informed me that the girls were returning from class. I turned to the entryway and saw a group of beautiful young women giggling and talking as they approached the meeting space. Once inside, they were suddenly quiet. “Nervous,” Deepika whispered to me. “Let’s try to make them feel comfortable,” she said.

They were colorful and vibrant, even in their silence. They whispered their names after some encouragement and smiled as Deepika relayed that I wanted to ask them a few questions. Three girls were nominated by their peers as representatives of the group, and they shyly but happily scooted to the front.

The smallest girl offered her name and age first. “Suman. I am 12 years old,” she said. "And your favorite subject?" I asked.

Suman, who, like most other girls here, goes by one name only, grinned and looked at her friends. They cheered her on, but erupted in nervous laughter. I looked to Deepika for an explanation. “No one ever asks them things like this. They are feeling important but also embarrassed,” she told me. She prompted Suman to continue, assuring her that she could take her time and that I was excited to hear her response.

“I like science, social studies and Hindi lessons,” she told me. “Dhanyehvad,” I said, thanking her in Hindi.

I looked over to the other girls.

“My name is Lakshmi and I am 13 years old. I enjoy my science and English courses.”

“I am 14 years old and my name is Manju. I like math and science.”

Aging India
Girls listen closely to their friends' responses to questions about how their lives differ from boys'. While these girls are allowed to attend school, they are often still expected to perform many household duties in addition to completing their school work.

I learned that they begin their school day at 7 a.m., take a break around 10, and then end their school day by 12:30 in time to return home to do their household work. Suman explained that they clean, cook, wash and simply do whatever needs to be done. Lakshmi joins in, “when I get home I also help take care of the goats.”

One mother and group member sitting nearby smiled at the mention of bacri, or goats. The women in the group purchased goats with their savings and involve their families in their care. The girls are happy that their families have received goats and tree saplings to feed them with because of their mothers’ work in the group.

Suman could hardly wait her turn. “My mother has become more vocal. She isn’t so hesitant anymore. Now she can even sign her own name to papers,” she said. All this talk about self-help groups and their mothers’ confidence roused the girls’ pride in their responses and the discussion about their lives in this village.

They told me that while they have a lot of housework to do, they make sure to study before going to bed by 10 p.m. They wake up at 6 in the morning. They talked excitedly about school, telling me that they don’t just learn in the classroom but also take field trips to neighboring cities and towns.

Thinking back to the conversation with my sister, I pressed for more. “Do you enjoy attending school and completing your homework?” I asked.

“We like going to school, and we like to study,” Manju said, but looked expectantly at Suman. The girls both looked around at the group trying to decide if they should share more. Suman decided she should, and continued her friend’s thought. “We enjoy learning, but school gives us another opportunity. It allows us to delay marriage because if we don’t study we get married off quickly. Then we have to have kids; we could fall sick.”

What? That wasn’t in my list of prepared questions. These young girls, my little sister’s age … married? I closed my mouth, composed myself, and asked Suman around what age girls usually marry in the village. “Fourteen,” she answered me quickly.

Lakshmi frowned. “That is too young now,” she said. “It is illegal. You are supposed to be 18 when you get married.”

I surprised myself. The emotion I felt wasn’t sadness or anger as I expected. I was happy and excited. Happy that these young women are opting to go to school and learn, even with all the work they have waiting for them at home. Excited to see them use their education and apply it to their lives.

The next day I had the pleasure of meeting with another group of girls in a neighboring village. I asked the chatty girls when they have opportunities to talk and laugh together. “During our walk to school,” responded Raju, 14. “We have fun and talk because when we go home we have to do our work.” She explained that the girls do not leave their homes after school.

“We have to do everything. We wash, clean, sweep, and we help out in any way we can,” said Sontoosh, 15, reiterating a sentiment that the girls had expressed the day before.

I looked over at a group of boys watching quietly; didn’t they have work to do?

“And the boys?” I asked. Keetu, 18, smiled and replied politely, “The boys, they don’t do anything.” The group agreed with this and commented that girls and boys play together when they are young, but girls are expected to stop playing and start working at a very young age.

“We use to play Cabati (traditional village game)” said a group member, and the girls laughed, remembering the fun game. An 11-year-old looked at me and clarified, “we don’t play that anymore; we are grown up now.”

Aging India
Manju, 14, (right) along with other girls from her village were reluctant at first to share much about what education means to them. Attending school allows them to understand their strength and self-worth.

The girls didn’t seem to mind too much that their days of Cabati were over, because they can finally study. Since their mothers joined the local self-help group, when the girls sit down to study, they aren’t interrupted to cook or clean. Their families respect their right to an education, equal to the boys.

As I packed up my things and got ready to leave, I looked up to find Sontoosh staring at me. She fired off a question at me in rapid Hindi, and I turned to Deepika for help. “She wants to know if they can ask you some questions as well.”

I laughed and told them that of course they could! I hadn’t ever had this happen, and welcomed the exchange. They asked about school in my country, what kind of clothes I normally wear and what types of chores I have to do. I answered their questions and sadly left with Deepika and the Heifer staff.

Months later, I was back in the United States talking with my younger sister again. After looking at my photos of the girls, she had so many questions. Where do they get such pretty clothes? What do they do in a normal day? To my surprise, she excitedly asked, “What are their schools like?”

The girls of Bikaner and their story had sparked us to talk about education from a different angle. My sister was shocked to find out what a struggle it was for the girls just to sit down and study at night, or their view of education as a privilege, not a barrier to summer and winter breaks. The conversation with her reminded me of my conversations in India, the young girls in different countries, giggling and talking in similar ways.

Heifer India is truly working to realize the potential of all self-help-group members. The women are bringing out the best in each other and becoming stronger with every girl they send to school. I hope the conversation does not remain limited to these middle school and high school girls. Conversations like the ones with these amazing young women can lead to real change and understanding. Heifer is providing them an open forum to speak with the power and strength they always had inside.