India: Girls Go Back to School, Helped By Fathers

Well, I am back from India, and frankly I don't know where to start to describe everything I saw. It was sad to see the conditions those girls are in. But I am excited about being able to help through the work of the Father and Daughter Alliance (FADA) and in partnership with other caring people!

The Times of India
reported on my visit (largest English language newspaper in the world, with over 3 million copies sold daily). I also got interviewed by Paul Beckett, Chief of the Delhi Bureau for the Wall Street Journal, the Hindustan Times and The Week. The Herald of India and Press Trust of India also reported on my visit.

The need is great and time is of the essence. People kept telling us that all the girls were already attending school. So we went personally to 3 slums (including Sanjay and Jagdamba) during school hours to check, and we found them, left and right, all over the place. Girls like Sargina,
who is 10 years old and is bound to a small tent taking care of her younger siblings in the Sanjay slum. Gita who is 13 and is cooking all day at home.
Or Noori who is 7, and helps around the house and with younger siblings. There are too many girls (we estimate over 900 of them in Sanjay and over a thousand in Jagdamba) not attending school.

I also met with fathers. People told me that men will not show up, that they are too busy or they don't care. Well, they did. Fifteen of them the first day, 20 the second day and about 28 of them the third day (for the workshop, see below). Many of them are not bringing their daughters to school (see picture). But when I asked them the question "if it was up to you and you had all the resources, would you bring your daughter to school?" they said yes. Attitudinal change at work! It may be hard to change cultures or traditions, but I've found that attitudes can change in a moment, given the right questions and enabling environment. And now we want to enable these fathers to help their own daughters go to school. As T.K. Mathew, our partner from Deepalaya told me in Hindi, fathers and daughters should go "saath saath" which means together, or in alliance.

So, we are moving quickly into action. First we are immediately bringing 20 girls or so that we met with personally while I was there, including Sargina, Gita, and Noori, to school! It will take some resources to make sure that these girls will now go to school and stay in school (which, coupled with the attention and protection from their fathers, is the best way to protect them from falling into sexual or labor enslavement).

We are also establishing 2 fathers associations for daughters' advancement in the two slums: Sanjay Colony and Jagdamba Camp. We are appointing 2 part time coordinators (P.T. Varghese, a very reliable man, who has a daughter and works with our local NGO partner, Deepalaya and Virender Singh who is also a father to a daughter) to organize and moderate the monthly meetings of fathers and daughters. These meetings will foster father-daughter communication, help fathers understand the value and dignity of their daughters (who are often called "Paraya Dhan" which means "somebody else's property"), and will keep fathers accountable and committed to supporting their daughters education and continued protection. To create incentives for fathers to attend without making money the motivating factor, during the first hour of these 2-hour monthly meetings, fathers and daughters will work together (it is light work, which will allow them to connect) to produce some beautiful canvas bags, which cost $2 each, and we will then sell them for about $7 and use the proceeds to sustain the activities of these fathers' associations for daughters' advancement.

To measure our progress and results over time, a longitudinal study will be conducted in partnership with an academic institution to ascertain the impact of this intervention on the reduction of sexual and labor slavery rates among girls, as well as early marriage, domestic abuse, and higher education and career opportunities. And we will track the behavior of fathers, their consumption habits (including excessive alcohol drinking, gambling and the like), and their income level and improvement of social conditions for the whole family.

In the coming weeks we are aiming to increase the number of girls enrolled in school to 100, with a goal of having 1,000 of them (from both slums) enroll in school by early next year. We are opening an afternoon shift (they only have a morning one at the moment) at the Ramditi JR Navang Deepalaya School in the Jagdamba Camp to bring these new girls to school and will also use the existing Deepalaya school at Sanjay Colony for the girls who live in that area (providing non-formal education first, since these girls are of different ages and maturity levels).

Simultaneously, the two part-time coordinators are conducting a survey in both slums to determine exactly the number of girls that are not attending school, and their family situation, including how we can work with their fathers to get them to school.

During my visit to Delhi I met with high-level officials at the Ministry of Education, and met again with Ms. Sheila Dikshit, Chief Minister of Delhi (governor of the capital region) at her residence. The Chief Minister is so excited about our work that she promised to attend the official launching of the 2 fathers' associations for daughters' advancement next month.

We held a workshop with fathers and daughters where the girls drew beautiful pictures (you can see them at our upcoming Father and Daughter Event at the beautiful OAS building in Washington, D.C. on Friday, October 9, 7-9 pm, save the date, more details coming!), while the fathers where telling what would make them proud about their daughters (after we asked them to ponder their daughter's education). Our partner in Delhi, T.K. Mathew from Deepalaya, did a great job presenting the Indian face of all this.

Two representatives from Operation Mobilization, which is an NGO working with Dalit (the Untouchables) in India took the 8 hour train ride from Lucknow just to be with us for the fathers and daughters workshop in Delhi. Afterwards, they told me "we have been working on children's education and related issues for close to 20 years, and we never thought of working with the fathers so they can help their children. This father and daughter connection has big potential and we invite you to come to our area and work with us to promote this concept." I hope I can do that soon.

So, we are moving quickly to bring these girls to school with the help of their fathers by September 1st. And officially launch the fathers associations by September 15 with the presence of the Chief Minister of Delhi.

Much work remains to be done for girls' education. And we are excited to give our contribution to this crucial issue.