They Did It!

By Christopher E. Lowman

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Though it has not been active for some time (but will be relaunching soon ), the “Girls Circle” journey I used to facilitate in India continues to bear fruit, with three of its newer members passing, with flying colors, the CBSE national exam for 10th and 12th class.

What is Girls Circle?

Girls Circle is an annual learning journey offered to girls and young women, ages 15-18, of the Gandhi Leprosy Seva Sangh — an impoverished leprosy community — in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India. Initially, its purpose was to support the educational ambitions and dreams of its members. Over the years, it evolved into a values-based support group that helped each member develop in the way most needed (e.g., confidence, maturity, wholesome habits, etc.) at the time.

We have seen Girls Circle participants successfully enroll in college, pursue Master’s degrees, and even find meaningful employment with well-respected organizations. In several cases, participation has helped to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty, stemming from the complex issues connected with the leprosy disease stigma. (Note: none of our girls has or had leprosy but all have family members with it.)

The path to college in India is hard for lower-income students.

To enroll in college in India, you have to complete Higher Secondary School (HSC) and pass the national exam for 12th class. This is the equivalent of the SAT for graduating seniors in High School in the US. First though, students must pass another national exam when they are in 10th class (sophomore year), which qualifies them for enrollment into HSC. If you don’t pass this preceding exam, then your academic journey comes to a halt, potentially jeopardizing your future. Similar to the SAT, these two challenging tests are therefore cause for a great deal of tension and stress.

This is especially true for our girls because they all live in a relatively impoverished area, where the quality of education is not that good vis large class sizes, under-resourced schools, and disincentivized teachers. Absent uncommon initiative and smarts to pick up the slack and learn on their own, this means they are usually ill prepared to take the exams—and they know it.

That, and our girls all have parents and other family members living at home who are relatively uneducated, who have, instead, had to tackle survival issues in a country and society hostile to those with the leprosy disease. For example, some of the parents of Girls Circle members must resort to begging (a common practice in this community) to earn their daily keep. As well meaning as family members are, such circumstances don’t often translate to supporting the younger generations in school. “Oh, you failed your 10th exam, you can just start working or get married.”

The need for extracurricular tuition.

Because of how much rides on these tests, most students — all from more financially-prosperous families — usually enroll in extracurricular tuition classes to receive supplemental academic support, as well as learn test taking best practices. Participation in these kinds of classes can almost guarantee a passing grade, provided the student attends regularly, pays attention, and does his or her homework. The catch? Extracurricular tuition classes are not free, and are usually out-of-reach for lower income students who, ironically, are the most in need of them.

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Meet Uma, Khushi, and Komal, three Girls Circle members from the 2017-2018 class. Respectively, this year, they took the 10th and 12th national board exams. Given the issues I just outlined, prior to the start of the last school year, all three expressed a desire to enroll in a tuition class to increase their odds of passing.

A collaborative, need-based intervention.

In the interest of privacy, I will not share the particulars of their family backgrounds. I will say that for all, the funds for tuition were not available due to greater than average household and family challenges. For example, one has a mother who resorts to begging on the street because her husband, a rikshaw driver, wastes his meager earnings on alcohol. Some of what she collects, she puts towards her daughter’s school fees. Imagine that.

Aruna, the Girls Circle facilitator, approached me to see if I might able to find somebody to sponsor the fees for tuition class so that Uma, Khushi, and Komal could enroll in one. Total amount to sponsor all three for the year? Approximately $750 or INR 50,000.

I am normally disinclined to offer short-term financial assistance because I’ve seen the complications it can cause, particularly in small, close-knit communities. Financial sponsorship of the kind often causes greed, jealousy, and can be disempowering for the beneficiary. However, because of the motivation level of these three students, the challenges they face at home, and a commitment from the parents to contribute around 30% of the fees per month, I agreed.

Within a matter of days, I received the full amount from a single donor in California and, shortly thereafter, Uma, Khushi, and Komal all enrolled in tuition.

More Girls Circle girls are college bound. :)

The 10th and 12th board exams were conducted in March and April of this year and, since then, we have all been eagerly awaiting the results, which were just recently posted online.

How did the girls do? They each passed—with flying colors! One even received a “B1” ranking, or close to 90%! That’s incredible and means they all made the most of the support they received. For Uma and Khushi, this means they qualify for Higher Secondary School and, for Komal, she can now apply to college.

It’s a monumental achievement. It was only six short years ago, when girls and young women of this community started pursuing their education in this way. Previously, most would have married and resigned to life as a householder, potentially sacrificing their dreams and ambitions.

Now, thanks to Uma, Khushi, and Komal and those that came before them, a path has been cleared for girls growing up at the Gadhi Leprosy Seva Sangh to pursue their education, before potentially settling down into the householder life that has been historically expected and considered non-negotiable.

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