“Awake, arise and educate
Smash traditions — liberate!”
— Savitribai Phule
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LUCKNOW, INDIA—It’s early afternoon on a pleasant February day when Kiran Sahu, 18, is walking home after a morning spent working at a daycare and before going to school.
Home for Sahu is a stark contrast to the gated bungalows with picture-perfect gardens that she walks past. It is a brick-walled room about 12 by eight feet tucked into one corner of a walled plot of land rented from the owner. The asbestos roof is leaky and layered with burlap and broken tree branches for protection. Colourful clothes hang on a line outside.
Just inside the doorway is a chulha or a brick stove about a foot wide, with clumps of ashes in the hearth. Next to it is a little yellow matchbox and plastic containers with food. Most of the space in the room is taken up by a bed on which Sahu sleeps with her mother, who is a construction worker, and two younger sisters. (Two other sisters and a brother are married and live elsewhere.)
There is no electricity. There is no bathroom. Heeding the call of nature necessitates a 25-minute walk to the railway tracks, usually in the darkness for privacy.
Like approximately six million children in India, who come from poor, landless and marginalized communities, Sahu accompanied her parents when they migrated a decade ago from their ancestral home to the city in search of seasonal work.
Her family reached the northern city of Lucknow. There she joined Prerna Girls’ School, run by the Study Hall Educational Foundation.
Sahu is keen to show her home and share details of her life. A Grade 10 student, she is soldiering on despite numerous pullouts from school, most recently when her beloved father died and the family moved back to the village, and before that when her brother burned her books to stop her from going to school.
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A common trajectory for a girl of Sahu’s background is to follow her mother’s footsteps, be married off as a child, and live a life of hard labour. She is designated OBC, or “Other Backward Classes,” a legal Indian term for socially and economically marginalized people who are neither the “upper caste” nor the “lowest.”
A Human Rights Watch report in 2014 found discrimination remained a major factor affecting access to education for children from marginalized communities, including Dalits (previously “untouchables” and lowest in the caste hierarchy), tribal groups, and Muslims.
Instead, Sahu, who studies in the light of a solar lamp her school has given her, aspires to social leadership. Also, she met Barack Obama last year.
Sahu is one of nearly 1,000 girls enrolled at Prerna school, defying the odds to become authors of their self-rescue from hauntingly marginalized lives at the intersections of gender, caste and extreme poverty.
The average student family income at this school is 9,000 rupees a month, or $ 180 Canadian. Twenty-six per cent of the girls work during the day to supplement their family income. Some 43 per cent of the fathers of students are chronic alcoholics, according to school data. The same proportion of fathers are illiterate, as are 63 per cent of mothers.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 80 million Indian children drop out of school before completing elementary education.
There are numerous schools across the world for students of lower economic status, many driven by charitable ideas of helping the poor.
A few practices set Prerna — which means inspiration — apart:
- The educators position themselves not as do-gooders but as co-learners in the education process.
- They place the curriculum and their teachings in contemporary social and political context.
- They exclusively employ critical feminist pedagogy — meaning, all their teaching practices cater towards raising a feminist consciousness.
And they do so through drama and critical dialogue.
Since being established in 2003, the school has enabled girls to become the unlikely heroes and resisters of their lives’ journeys.
What the students learn is the stuff of educators’ fantasy: a sense of oneself as a full human with rights; an ability to recognize and name the constraints of patriarchal, caste and class structures; and a boldness with language coupled with an inner conviction to challenge those oppressions.
In Sahu’s case, that has led to a reimagining of the future.
“I want to be an officer in the Indian police,” she says in Hindi. She is at least partly fuelled by the desire to prove her brother wrong. “I want all girls to understand that … they don’t have to accept defeat.”
During one of her stints out of school, Sahu was sent back to her ancestral village and made to work on a farm. She says she constantly nagged the girls there. “I used to ask why don’t you study? Who is it that creates a problem? And in all families, it emerged that it was either a father or a brother who did so.”
Urvashi Sahni is the founder of Study Hall Education Foundation, the driving force behind Prerna. Sahni channelled her own experience of sexist discrimination at home and society to became an academic at Berkeley university and then to empower girls in far worse social positions. Her approach to education was deeply influenced by the guru of education philosophers Paulo Freire, Maxine Green and bell hooks.
“Critical pedagogy really is very simple. You talk about your world, you talk about what’s going on and collectively you make sense of it. The teacher’s role is to ask the difficult questions to help them see that it’s a structural thing.”
To implement these teaching practices, she turned to her own love of drama.
“How do you work on yourself to build an identity as an equal person deserving respect, having the right of agency,” she says, “and to voice your protest and to voice your desires, your aspirations? Drama is a great place for that.
“We use performance drama. We use street theatre. We use poetry. We use every medium that we can to provide a safe space for self-work.”
This use of drama as awakening is central to the school’s philosophy. The Human Rights Watch report titled “They Say We’re Dirty” found that discrimination in Indian schools took various forms, including teachers asking Dalit children to sit separately and making insulting remarks about Muslim and Adivasi (tribal) students.
“Our goal is to give them (students) a safe space to feel indignation and to practise resistance,” says Sahni.
“Many oppressed people have no right to expect that indignation. They’re not even supposed to feel bad.”
Using drama as a teaching tool is safe, she says, because “you can express resistance without a backlash. You can express your indignation, your anger, your hurt, your pain and your desire for transformation to your parent community without directly addressing your father.”
The methodology in the classroom is also interactive. Children are encouraged to speak a lot, teachers listen. “Whenever somebody you respect listens to what you have to say,” says Sahni, “the message you get is that I must be saying something smart, that’s why somebody’s listening. And that helps you develop a voice.
“So it’s not just the curriculum. It’s the whole school culture and we call it a universe of care. The teachers are respected as persons, too. Their lives also matter.”
When India won independence from the British in 1947, its literacy rate was 14 per cent, with female literacy at 8 per cent. Successive government initiatives have brought the overall national literacy rate to 74 per cent (and a female rate of 65 per cent).
But education by itself does not empower people unless its curriculum critically addresses inequitable social norms and structures, Sahni writes in her book Reaching for the Sky: Empowering Girls Through Education. “Education to be real and authentic must be relevant to our lives. It must respond to our condition and it must illuminate it.”
What does teaching with drama look like? It is not the same as having year-end musicals or class skits as entertainment, or perhaps to learn a story.
Teacher Roli Saxena is taking a critical dialogue and drama session in a “bridge class” — a class with a group of girls age 10 to 18, who have returned after long periods of being out of school. They spend a year studying together before being evaluated and assigned to appropriate grades.
She begins innocuously enough. “What is your day like?” she asks. “What do you do when you wake up?”
The girls shout out their answers as she writes them.
“Wake up” “Around 5 a.m.” “6 a.m.”
“Clean the house.”
“Go to work.” (usually domestic labour in people’s homes)
“And then?” she prompts.
“We come to school from 1:30 to 5:30.”
“Clean the house.”
“Go to bed.” “10:30.” “11 p.m.” “Aunty, sometimes it’s midnight.”
“OK,” says Saxena. “On this list, what are things your brothers do?” And she puts a check mark next to the activities in common — going to school and studying — and a cross next to what’s not, which is the rest of it. Only one item gets both a check and a cross — some of their brothers also work before or after school.
Saxena starts another list next. “What are things your brothers can do that you can’t?”
And the responses come fast and furious.
“He can go out in the evening.”
“He can wear whatever he wants.”
“Aunty, he got a mobile phone.”
“He can marry whoever he wants.”
She asks: “How does this make you feel?”
“Like I’m not good enough.”
“Like what did I do to be treated this way?”
Now comes the assignment. The class is split into two. “Take seven minutes. You,” she says, gesturing to one half, “will make a play based on the first list. You,” she tells the other half, “will make one based on the second list of things, your brothers can do but you can’t.”
Seven minutes later the class is engrossed in two entertaining plays. They have one prop — a chair — and the dialogues come from their lives, leading to a cacophony of voices of their mothers, fathers, grandmothers, brothers, all putting them in their place when the girls try to resist the constraints.
At the end of it, Saxena credits their creativity and then asks, “So do you want to do something about it?”
Of course, they do. They discuss options and decide to speak to their brothers. “They’re our age. They might understand why it’s not fair.”
“OK,” she says. “Your assignment for the next class is to come back with what your brothers said.”
After the class, Saxena says: “The solutions have to come from them.
“In previous years, when speaking to brothers didn’t work, they have roped in their grandmothers.” If nothing works and the situation is urgent — say there is an alcoholic, abusive father or a girl is being married off against her will — they ask the teachers to mediate, and the teachers do.
Outside of drama, says school principal Rakhi Panjwani, who also teaches math and science, “We connect social justice to as many subjects as we can.
“(If) I’m teaching them systems, like digestion, I create a drama around malnutrition. They discuss ‘What is a balanced diet? Why do you we need a proper digestive system for the body?’ ”
The principal recalled an example from math. “There was a population census done in a village. In it there were these many girls and these many boys. So I say, ‘Let’s talk about why there are more boys?’ And they come up with the answers. Girls are burnt to death (for dowry), and girls are even killed in the womb. So now it’s related to math — and gender.”
A critical feminist teaching practice that dives deeper than slogans such as “girl power” or hashtags such as #TheFutureIsFemale would also greatly benefit Ontario schoolchildren of all genders, but especially those marginalized on the basis of identity or ability.
University of Toronto researcher Kathleen Gallagher and her team of graduate students conducted a five-year study on drama pedagogy and “radical hope” across five countries including Prerna school in Lucknow. Where in Lucknow it interrupted oppressions of caste and gender, their three years of research in an east-end Toronto classroom showed it had the potential to interrupt the classroom social relations of race and gender.
In one classroom in the first year of the study, the drama work saw animated discussions on race and police brutality that disrupted the usual dynamics by focusing on Black expertise and experience and inviting a reflection on white privilege.
If drama-based classes “allow young people to break out of prescribed and limiting social roles, even temporarily,” the researchers wrote, “they remain hopeful possibilities.”
Sahni’s own journey of understanding oppression has evolved with the school. If the first year was spent going door to door persuading girls to join in 2003, the next two years looked at the quality of education and introduction of a critical feminist pedagogy.
“I was very, very focused on gender,” she says, “because it cuts across caste and class.” Over time, the focus on caste-ist oppression grew as did creating an intersectional approach.
This much is clear: the school has wrought attitudinal shifts. More fathers have become involved, for instance. “We’ve seen many of them dropping their girls, many more attend the meetings,” Sahni says.
The aspirations of the girls have grown. “It’s almost the new normal,” she says, that they will go to university.
Parental aspirations have changed, too. “We have been able to delay marriage dates.”
Of the 151 girls who have graduated from the school, just 26 are married.
Rekha Kashyap, who has two daughters in the school, says she used to be illiterate and ashamed of it. “But soon my daughters taught me to read and write, and now I can sign my name, I can even read newspapers now. I’m a seamstress, and I can read all the paperwork.”
Two fathers, Vijay Kant Singh and Muharram Ali, say neither caste nor religion would matter in their daughters’ choice of husbands as long as their girls were happy.
Rajesh Burman has two daughters in school. “I want them to stand on their own feet,” he says. But he wouldn’t support them marrying into another caste. When asked, he says flatly: “No.”
It is simple enough to ask students to “say no” at school. Say no to child marriage. Say no to child labour. Say no to bullying. But what happens when “saying no” carries risk of damaging, even deadly repercussions?
“Saying no” to child labour could mean no food in some of the Prerna girls’ homes. It could take away their ability to come to school. So the school accommodates the girls’ schedules and begins in the afternoons to offer a pathway out of poverty. It charges a fee of 30 rupees a month. In the mornings, it houses middle- and upper-class students whose fees subsidize Prerna operations.
“Saying no” to child marriage could mean physical violence against the girls and sometimes even death. So when teachers mediate, they don’t demonize the parents or their culture. They negotiate the timelines, making parents see the benefits of waiting until the girl is at least an adult. Sometimes they turn to a women’s rights organization — which also runs a family counselling centre — and child protection services. In the worst cases, they call police.
Teachers, who come from more privileged class and castes than the students, are made to reflect critically on their own unearned privileges, says Sahni. They are trained to honour the intrinsic worth of a child, to empower them and to help them develop alternative visions of the future.
“We do not view ourselves in adversarial relationships with the parent community,” says Sahni. “Teaching does not happen in a vacuum but in the social context of the children’s lives and worlds.”
Every six weeks or so, the students perform street theatre for the community, something that the school sees as non-confrontational intervention, a bridge between the girls’ school lives and home lives.
Two years ago, they performed a play on child marriage. A 15-year-old girl named Gomti Rawat was cast in the role of child bride. Unbeknownst to the teachers, Gomti’s 17-year-old sister, Garima Rawat, was resisting tremendous pressure from her mother and grandmother to get married.
“I had just begun Grade 9,” says Garima. “So I was looking ahead at my life thinking of what needed to do, to study more, what kind of job I’d have, what I want to be. And it also happened that my mom was fixing my marriage.”
At this point she grew indignant. “That boy was not a boy. He was a man. And quite old. He didn’t have parents. He didn’t have his own house. And he had just popped up. He probably helped Mom work around the farm and she thought he would be a good match.”
The girls have long dreamed of graduating Grade 12, for a shot at a job allowing them to stop working as domestic labour.
“We tried hard to reason with Grandma. I said I’m not even in Grade 10. If I don’t finish Grade 10, I won’t be able to get a job. Then I spoke to Mom (who lives in their ancestral village) on the phone and tried to make her understand. “I don’t want to just cut grass in farms like you do. I don’t want to just stay at home and do housework. I want to become someone. I also have dreams.’ My brothers also tried to convince her that this was wrong.”
But their mother got upset and told them, “You no longer exist for me.” She stopped speaking with them.
The play was scheduled while this was going on, and their grandmother persuaded their mother to come. The girls didn’t know she was in the audience.
The play was about a girl being forced to marry. “She knew that I played the role of the bride, and that’s all she knew,” says Gomti. “She didn’t know that it was going to be about what kind of problems arise if you’re a child bride.”
“We had shown quite brutally what the consequences of a child marriage are,” says Panjwani, the principal. “Her home situation, how her studies end, and then how the child can’t share with her parents what’s going on because she doesn’t want to hurt the parents.”
Garima takes up the tale.
“Their eyes started filling with tears. Mom and Grandma both. And then after the play she came to us and she just fell in our arms and started crying. ‘Now I understand,’ she says. We also started crying. And we said this is a good thing to have happened. She said, ‘Study as much as you want, marry whom you want. Now go, study well.’ ”
At this both the girls tear up a little. Garima wants to become a teacher. Gomti wants to be an actor or writer.
“We have a good life,” Garima said.
Sahni calls her Prerna students dynamos. “Look at the power of drama. I’ve seen them learn to walk taller. I’ve seen them learn to look into your eyes and talk and to have an unfaltering gaze and I’ve seen them develop such strong selves and it shows in their bodies.”
Laxmi Nishad, 26, is a Prerna alum with an MBA. She is Dalit. She says there were times her alcoholic father would bring in a man he’d just met and order her to marry him. There were times when he would beat their mother and abuse them all. When she was 13, her mother died. Her father, he still drinks. Only now he has tuberculosis and hospitals don’t take him in. “He drinks every day and when he’s desperate he sells things from home.” Her story has been shared in Sahni’s book.
Nishad won’t throw him out of the house. Like many girls in the school, she has become the family leader and takes responsibility for the wellbeing of the rest. She bought a plot of land for her sisters.
“If I go away or I get married and the girls are young, then instead of renting they can at least stay in their own home so that they don’t have any troubles.” Then she weeps softly. “I feel like they should never have the kind of problems I’ve had.”
Buying land has wider implications than her personal empowerment; Dalits are traditionally landless.
In 2016, Prerna was chosen to be part of the Obama Foundation’s Global Girls Alliance. Although as U.S. president, Obama supported policies such as standardized curriculum and using test scores to evaluate teachers, his foundation chose a school that had thrown out the standardization rulebook in favour of learner-centred education.
The foundation has an annual summit where Sahni was invited to come along with two girls whose lives changed because of education. Sahni chose Nishad. The foundation did a short film on Laxmi’s life and young Laxmi was played by Kiran Sahu, the teen who wants to be a police officer. So both girls went with Sahni, where they met Obama.
Nishad had fantasized about travelling and perhaps seeing the White House someday. “I never even dreamt that that I would actually go to America, that I’d meet Obama and shake hands with him. I shook his hand twice! Ha ha! I felt so good. We didn’t talk much but he said ‘You’re from India? Nice to meet you.’
“Then I came back, and everybody was congratulating me, and they’d say ‘Now you’re a big shot, why would you now speak to us’ or ‘now we’ll have to take your autograph.’
“Compared to a lot of people I’ve achieved a lot in my life.”
Sahu’s face breaks into a wide smile at the mention of Obama. “It was good,” she says shyly, of the meeting.
Given everything she has been through, how does she view her 18 years on Earth? Has life been a gift, or a burden?
Sahu looks up with a steady gaze. “School is where I found family. From no angle does my life feel like a burden.”
Shree Paradkar, a columnist covering issues around race and gender, is the 2018-2019 recipient of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @ShreeParadkar
Education Without Oppression — the 2018-19 Atkinson series — examines the continuing marginalization of Black and Indigenous students in Canada. It analyzes the challenges and breakthroughs nationally and in the cities of Baltimore, Md.; Lucknow, India; and Napier, New Zealand.
The Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy awards a seasoned Canadian journalist the opportunity to pursue a yearlong investigation into a current policy issue. The project is funded by the Atkinson Foundation, the Honderich family and the Toronto Star.