Day 4 in the Field with Plan India

My post tonight will be short as I have to catch the night train from Bikaner to Delhi & begin the long journey back to the West Village of Manhattan.  It will take me close to 2 days in total.  I’ll write a longer post tomorrow or over the weekend on the experience as a whole.  I’ll share just two short stories tonight from today’s school visit.

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This happy group of kids are grades 5-8 and members of the Aflatoun Children’s Club sponsored by #PlanIndia.  I’ve never had so many students in one room tell me they want to be a doctor when they grow up.  They told me there is one boy who has not been coming to school regularly (aside from him all others are coming to school).  One of the boys in the club is plans to go to the missing boy’s home and first try to understand why he has been absent.  They believe he has been absent because he doesn’t like to study, and said they will keep on trying until the time he comes back to school.

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Meet the current class of girls enrolled in Urmul Setu / Plan India’s residential camp.  There are 145 girls living and studying on the campus an hour drive from Bikaner.  Today I met two of the girls who attended the residential camp last year to better understand the impact the camp has on the lives of girls who come from villages with no secondary schools.  Pooja’s story is typical of the students who attend the residential school.  Pooja graduated from Grade 12 last year and is currently enrolled in a community camp which will help her earn her B.A.  The school in Pooja’s village only goes through Grade 8, so she was studying on her own at home for grades 9-11 before she learned about the residential camp: “Though I was studying I didn’t know anything because I was at home alone.  When I was at the residential camp there were so many other girls and we discussed so many other things apart from academics, such as financial education. This is something I never would have learned at home or in the other schools.  The teachers were very helpful.  There was a large group of girls there and we all used to sit together,  discuss issues, get to know so much more while at the camp.”  The community camp she attends now run by Urmul and Plan India will support her for the first 3 out of the 4 years required to earn her B.A.  Once she earns her B.A. she’ll be eligible to become a teacher.

Tuesday, November 17: Second Day in the Field with Plan India

Visit to Grade 1-10 Government School near, Bikaner, Rajasthan

Every school visit brings a new surprise. Today I traveled to another village school. The school is grades 1-5, with ~180 students and 4 teachers. I’ll share two short stories from today. The first told from the perspective of mothers and grandparents who belong to a women’s Self Help Group (SHG). The SHG meets monthly, and all members are expected to save 100 rupees each month with they will contribute to the group. As a group they decide to whom they will loan money each month. The second story is from the perspective of the school teachers on the impact of Financial Literacy and Life Skills training on their students. Who better to speak about the changing attitudes towards girls education in the desert villages of Bikaner than their mothers and grandmothers. The women I met today are members of 3 different Self Help Groups. All 11 women are illiterate, but they want their daughters and granddaughters to finish at least grade 12. They told me girls today are more vocal in sharing that they want to study, and the girls are asking not to be married early. “Girls have changed. They are not the ones who they were a few years back, listening to whatever their parents say. They have a voice and they know what they want to become… They have seen the plight of other girls in the village who were married early and are illiterate. Seeing their plight and learning from them the girls are now saying they want to be educated so that they can get a job and be financially empowered. Girls want to earn for themselves and not be dependent on their husband.” I asked what these women think the future will look like 10 years from now for the girls in their village, and one of the women replied “Ten years from now the earth will start shaking. The universe will know that people in India are getting an education.”

Today the headmaster took me to see lunchtime so that he could show me how all the children have embraced the lesson of equality which they’re teaching during the Financial Literacy and Life Skills (FELS) class. Earlier I had asked the teachers at this elementary school what changes they have seen in their students since the creation of the Children’s Club and implementation of FELS curriculum. The teachers shared with me that previously caste discrimination was still a problem they were facing in the school. For example a student might say ‘I will not eat if he or she serves me the food.’ That has now completely stopped. The breakdown of caste discrimination started prior to the FELS course, however with FELS now the message that this is a no discrimination zone is even stronger & the students have taken ownership for ending discrimination amongst themselves. According to the headmaster “The message of equality is strong. You can see that there is no problem now. The children are serving together, eating together. The students are taking this message home and discussing it with their parents… The older community members may not all change their views, however in the community as a whole you can see changes and the children are playing a role.”

Thursday is my final day in the field. I will be en transit Thursday until Saturday morning.  I’ll continue posting stories from my trip over the next week as I finish compiling them. The wifi is crawling tonight, so I’ll be posting photographs Thursday and Friday wifi permitting.

Tuesday, November 17: Second Day in the Field with Plan India

Visit to Grade 1-10 Government School in near Bikaner, Rajasthan

The drive out of Bikaner this morning began on a paved two-way road, but at some point the cement transitioned to dirt and the two lanes turned into what felt like a one-way road with cars, carts, buses, and trucks occasionally coming at us from the other direction.  One thing I haven’t gotten used to during 2.5 weeks in India is the feeling while you’re racing down the road and another car is coming straight at you that this might be the time when neither car bothers to swerve.  The swerve always feels like it happens right at the last possible moment.

It was a two hour drive from downtown Bikaner.  The Bikaner area has 6 blocks, each of which is responsible for the administration of schools in that block and working towards implementation of the Indian government’s Right to Education (RTE) Act requirements.  Lunkaransar Block has villages which are up to 120km away from the administrative center.  Due to the heavy reliance on agriculture in what is essentially a desert, villages can be quite far apart.  Some families choose to live in smaller groups closer to their land & are farther yet from villages.  This geography is important when you’re considering how to enact an education act which requires schools to be built in local communities.  How do you build, staff, and maintain schools when the population is spread across such a large area.  In Lunkaransar Block much work has been done over the last 20 years to build village primary schools, which gives most children in grades 1-5 access to a school.  The current challenge is extending this access to the upper grades, and in particularly secondary and senior secondary school (grades 9-12).  It isn’t feasible to build a senior secondary school in every village, nor is it realistic for a 15 year old girl to travel 20km by herself from her home to school each day via foot or bicycle.  This leaves many children little choice in the matter.  Once they complete the highest grade offered in their village school they are finished with their schooling.

With that background in mind today I met with the School Management Committee (SMC) for one of the village government schools.  All current parents are officially part of the SMC, along with teachers and the headmaster.  They choose 11 parents to function as their representatives and work alongside a teacher, the headmaster, a student, and a local official.  Those 15 people are responsible for assessing the needs of the school and creating a 5 year development plan, which is submitted to the district education office for review.  The SMC asked for 4 things in their plan:

  1. repair school boundary
  2. add more rooms to the school
  3. bring more teachers to the school
  4. make the school senior secondary, up to class 12

They have a good history of advocating for their school.  This school was originally a primary school, but the SMC advocated to make the school at least secondary since there was no secondary school in the area.  These efforts resulted in the school being upgraded and continuing through grade 10.  The school at one time had only 1 teacher for grades 1-10.  The SMC lobbied to the district elected official to bring more teachers, particularly specialized teachers, to the school.  That was a collective effort which yielded results.  The district sent a math teacher to the school.  There was a previous headmaster who was very good and supportive of the school.  When the SMC found out he was being transferred they went to the local elected official and made sure his transfer orders were taken back so that he could stay.

The SMC has submitted their development plan, and now they await district review.  The most likely outcome is the district official will approve the various items and allocate funds in stages.  To have all the items approved might take 1 year or 5 years or anything in between, but one by one the district will approve the plan and allocate funds.  The SMC was confident within 5 years they will have what they requested.

All schools are required to create a School Management Committee, but the SMC is particularly important in the schools in which Plan India and Urmul Setu are supporting Financial Literacy and Life Skills training alongside improvements to the general quality of the education.  The long-term plan is to turn projects over to the SMC once they are embedded in the school community.  The parents and teachers I met today are 100% engaged in this project.  This is a harvest season, and yet the room was packed with far more than the 15 functionary members.  I asked the parents how they feel about their children learning about financial literacy, and their responses were very consistent with what the girls yesterday told me their parents think.  One father and SMC member said “My child is learning good things in the FELS program, and he is sharing what he learns from his teacher with the other family members.  My son is saving in Aflatoun Bank.  He’s saving for school requirements such as stationary and notebooks, which he’ll buy himself from his savings.  Students are saving not only money, but other things such as food, water, electricity.  They’re not just talking about saving resources, but they are actually trying to do it both at school and at home.  They’re bringing this learning home to their families.”  One of the teachers commented that she also sees a difference in the students after the FELS curriculum was introduced:  “Implementing FELS has been a very good experience for us as teachers.  We are seeing good habits being ingrained in the children.  Students are saving money and there is a thought process.  The students used to spend money on things like chocolates, and then sometimes they didn’t have money when they needed to buy a notebook for school.  Now that the students have savings they won’t be negatively impacted by not having money.”

The SMC helped me to understand the nuances of why even with the government’s Right to Education Act there are still major challenges for children to accessing the formal education system.  The parents told me their children want to become doctors, nurses, teachers, police offices, administrators, members of the army, and one even a politician.  Their children all have goals, and some are very vocal about their goals.  In spite of this parents and teachers believe it will be very difficult for the children to become all these things.   In addition to the lack of local secondary schools (high schools), there is no proper guidance for children in what they need to do to pursue a specific career path.  If a boy wants to become a teacher, there is no one to tell him what classes he needs to take and where are the colleges.  They asked who will help him make a plan – there is no one to guide him in the village.  If a girl wants to become a doctor, she needs someone to tell her to take science classes in grades 11 and 12.  Even if she and her parents know this, they must find a school which offers science to those grades and then a safe place for her to live if the school is too far away to commute.

In spite of the difficulties there are success stories.  Last year one girl secured 81% marks in Grade 10 (a very strong score), and after receiving her score the parents came to school and asked the teachers for suggestions on how to help their daughter excel.  She wants to become a doctor, so they advised that she take science in Grade 11.  There are no schools in the area which offer science in that grade level, so they made arrangements for her to live in a girls’ hostel in the district headquarters.  This hostel has bus service to a high school with science.  The SMC cited this as an example of how some parents are willing to send their children far away so that they can continue their studies and reach their dreams, and how parents are taking their children’s goals seriously.

Just as interesting were the questions which the parents and teachers asked me.  They wanted to know everything about education in America.  How are rural schools different from urban schools in the US – do we face any of the same challenges they are facing in a lack of science teachers wanting to move to the desert?  They were very interested in the US requirement that public schools provide free bus services to students so that they can access school.  I also described the Teach for America model to bring top college grads into underserved communities as teachers for 2 years.  They wanted to know if girls and boys in America have the same access to education, and were interested to hear that in some of my classes in college there was still a large disparity in the number of girls compared with boys in certain subjects, such as my finance classes.  They wanted to know how I like India of course, and after raving about the food and the experience one father said if I like India so much I should move here.  He said I could work at the school – and he’d even throw in a good match 😉

Monday, November 16: First Day in the Field with Plan India

I’ve been traveling through India for the last two weeks.  The food has been as delicious as you all told me it would be.  The forts have been even more stunning than I hoped, and I won’t even attempt to describe the Taj Mahal.  The travel has been at some times easier and others more challenging, which is exactly as I expected.  I’ve been some amazing places, but it was all leading up to today.  Today I started four days of visits to schools in Bikaner, which is in Northwestern Rajasthan.  In Bikaner Plan India is running a Financial Literacy and Life Skills Program in conjunction with local non-profit partner Urmul Setu.  My trip to Bikaner was sponsored by Credit Suisse Global Citizens Program in Education, which partners employees with nonprofits to increase the organization’s operational capacity.  My assignment is to document the Credit Suisse-sponsored Financial Literacy for Girls Pilot Program in Bikaner.  The name sells short the skills being imparted, as the pilot program encompasses much more than you would traditionally consider financial literacy.  Beyond financial literacy the students are learning life skills, learning how to be responsible for themselves and their school communities, and receiving support to complete their 12th grade graduation exams.  Financial Literacy & Life Skills (FELS) is being taught in grades 1 – 12 at government schools in four out of the size regions in Bikaner, as well as at a live-in residential school for high school age girls who are unable to access government secondary schools.

The girls I met today impressed me with the confidence they have that they’ll be able to achieve their goals.  I led in depth interviews with three girls, and all three know exactly what they are going to be when they grow up.  Radha (age 12) told me she is going to be a doctor.  She’s not sure yet what kind of doctor, but a doctor for sure.  Meena (age 18) is going to join the army.  Her second choice is to be a teacher for primary school children.  Nidhi (age 12) will be an engineer, and she wants to work for a big company.  All three know they need school beyond grade 12 and are saving money for their higher education.  I would be impressed if three girls from St. Ann School in East Harlem, Manhattan where I volunteer told me these were their plans for the future.  The three girls I met today live in rural villages in northwestern Rajasthan, an area which has struggled to ensure all girls attend secondary school (high school).  All three girls told me they don’t see a difference between girls’ and boys’ ability to learn to manage and save money, or their ability to excel in school.  They are sharing what they are learning about saving money and resources with their parents, siblings, and friends, creating a ripple effect in their respective communities.

Let me backtrack and give you some of Plan International’s statistics around the current state of education in India (as of 2013):

  • 1.4mm children of primary school age are out of school, of which 60% are girls
  • Nearly 80mm children fail to complete elementary education
  • 12m+ children are forced into child labor
  • There are 940 girls for every 1000 boys
  • India is home to 1 in 3 of the world’s child brides

Plan International has taken an innovative approach to combatting a host of issues around children’s rights, which they call Child Centered Development.  In short they create programs focused on all the issues which prevent children from breaking the cycle of poverty, i.e. healthcare, sanitation and hygiene, quality of education, and economic empowerment.  The programs Plan and their local partners administer engage the kids themselves alongside their communities to discuss the problems.  I was skeptical that I would meet girls who felt comfortable telling me they talk about issues such as child marriage, child labor, or child abuse.  Those are issues which I’m not sure how many adults are comfortable discussing.  When I asked the girls today what they talk about in their Children’s Clubs or Aflatoun Clubs each one said in her own words “We talk about the importance of saving money, but also other resources, such as water and electricity.  We talk about issues which affect us, such as child marriage, child labor, and how to achieve our goals.”  When is the last time a 12 year old girl told you in her after school club she led a discussion on how to address such serious issues in her community.  When I was 12 the major issues affecting my life were the recent ban on wearing snap bracelets to school (for those of you who don’t remember the early 90s click here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slap_bracelet), and how nervous I was to pitch in the upcoming kickball city tournament.  12 year old Kristin could have gained some real perspective from Radha, Meena, and Nidhi.  They would have also convinced me to save my money for college, rather than spending it on slap bracelets.

As I finish transcribing my interviews I’ll share more stories with you.  Tonight I’ll close with two  questions I asked the girls attending residential school.  I asked how many are saving money for their education because of the FELS classes?  Almost every girl in the room raised her hand.  Earlier I had told the girls that I volunteer at 1-8th grade school in America, and I asked them if they thought I should bring FELS to my school.  Every single hand was in the air in a heartbeat.  At the beginning of this post I said I couldn’t describe the feeling of seeing the Taj Mahal two weeks ago, but I can say that meeting the girls today was even better.

Before the Assignment Begins

Many of you have listened to me talk about this trip to India for months – some of you have even seen my apartment covered in photography and backpacking gear for the last two weeks.  My departure date is (finally!) almost here.  I’m leaving Saturday October 24 for Delhi, returning to NYC on Sunday November 15.  During this trip I’ll spend a week in Bikaner, in Northwestern Rajasthan documenting Plan International’s Financial Literacy for Girls Program as part of an Education Assignment in Credit Suisse Foundation’s Global Citizens Program.

This assignment will involve interviewing and photographing participants in the financial literacy and life skills (FELS) program which Plan India is administering in 708 schools across in Rajasthan.  The goal is to expand the FELS program to a total of 1615 schools by the end of the current school year, which is the second year of the pilot program.  To date 22 Master Teachers have been trained in FELS, and those Master Teachers have passed on training to 1215 teachers.

The Global Citizens Program is intended to build core skills at our key non-profit partners in Education and Microfinance by sending employees into the field on assignment.  I have been working with Plan India for several months to understand the Financial Literacy & Life Skills Program, who the key stakeholders are, and their communication goals.  Plan India will use the content I produce on their website and social media platforms.

While traveling through Rajasthan over the next 3 weeks I’m excited to learn more about its history, culture, and people.  In addition to this blog I’ll be posting to Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #PlanIndia.

Blog Kickoff

I’m in the final stages of preparing for my upcoming photojournalism project assignment in India – only 1.5 weeks from departure!  I’ll be using a new blog, https://kristinplanindia.wordpress.com, to update you on my daily experiences visiting schools in Rajasthan with Plan India, who is administering a Financial Literacy and Life Skills program at 708 schools in Bikaner and surrounding areas.

Any advice for traveling in Northern India or suggestions where I should visit the week after my project is completed please let me know!