On 9 March 2022, to mark International Women’s Day, Commonwealth Alumnus Sakhi Anita hosted an in-person and virtual event titled ‘Voice It Out’ in Nashik, India. The event brought together girls and young women to discuss their experiences and thoughts about their education and aimed to change the perception of girls as victims to knowing and agentic individuals. Through discussion, the event aimed to initiate a multi-stakeholder dialogue around how marginalised girls’ access to education can be supported in light of the new realities and new challenges of the post-COVID era.

Sakhi is a current PhD candidate with the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS, University of London. The event was delivered in collaboration with Abhivyakti Media for Development, a local non-profit NGO that has been working in the local area on various development issues for more than 30 years.

Girls in rural and tribal parts of India face considerable hardships in accessing secondary and higher education. Drawing on her PhD fieldwork, Sakhi has identified three overlapping domains that hinder girls’ access to education and self-development: poverty and lack of economic and social resources; patriarchal biases in family and community, including an overwhelming push towards early marriage of girls; and lack of infrastructural support mechanisms, including public transport, availability of secondary and higher secondary schools, and safety from harassment. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has further compounded these challenges and gaps in service provision.

The impact of school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for girls’ education. Due to the closure of schools, girls have had no choice but to stay at home. Rural and tribal girls have very limited access to digital resources needed for online learning and have not been able to continue their education online. In some households, girls staying at home is seen as a threat to the family honour, even though many are working in the home or as daily wage workers. This perceived threat, along with a desire amongst some to marry off daughters in a quick and inexpensive way due to the lockdowns, has led to an increase in early marriages.

During her fieldwork carried out with girls from the rural and tribal belts of the Nashik district in India, it became evident to Sakhi that girls have a lot to say about their own experiences of navigating overlapping structures of restrictions and discrimination as they access secondary and higher education, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite facing multiple and multidimensional challenges, many girls are determined and desire to create a better future for themselves and their communities.

Yet the knowledge and mental/emotional resources that girls have accumulated through their lived experiences are rarely acknowledged and appreciated in education policy. It is therefore necessary to rethink how girls are perceived and engaged within policy and programmatic frameworks.

Handing over the microphone

The event, ‘Voice It Out’, brought together five girls and young women to present their experiences of and demands for girls’ education in India to a multi-stakeholder audience. They formed an in-person panel, while over 50 attendees representing various stakeholders in girls’ education joined the event virtually. The attendees included representatives from civil society organisations in India and Asia, international networks on education advocacy, funding organisations, local government, and academia.

The panel discussion formed the focus of the event during which the girls shared their experiences and thoughts about their education. The discussion was moderated by the Abhivyakti Shodhini project team, which included girls and young women from similar backgrounds. Sakhi provided English translation to enable attendees to follow the discussion.

The panel focused on three thematic areas: access to education; participation in education; and outcomes from education.

The discussion opened on the provision of education (primary, secondary, and higher secondary) in their villages in Nashik district. Most villages only have schools up to Grade 7, after which they have to travel to schools in neighbouring villages or towns. This can be challenging due to a lack of or limited transportation services and bad roads. The girls spoke about safety concerns and shared that they faced harassment on a daily basis whilst going to school, especially from boys and young men on the roadside or in public transportation. The girls also addressed the challenges they faced from their families in accessing education. This included limited money to buy supplies and books and pay for school fees, family preference to invest in the education of sons rather than daughters, and early marriages for girls.

In addressing participation in education, the girls spoke about the challenges they faced whilst in school or college. These included improper institutional facilities, lack of clean toilets and running water, harassment from teachers and other students, and prejudice against girls studying certain subjects. The girls also shared that they are under pressure from their families to drop out of school, either to be married (sometimes without their consent), to contribute to the family income by working as agricultural or wage labourers, or to do the housework and caretaking of young children in the family. The girls also spoke critically about the paradoxical attitudes towards girls’ education in their communities. Whilst there is agreement that ‘mulgi shikali pragati zali’ which translated means ‘educating a girl will herald progress’, on the other side, girls’ education is regarded as having no ‘real’ economic or social value, leading to the perception of girls’ schools and colleges as ‘waiting rooms’ until they can be married.

In the final round, the girls shared their own hopes, aspirations, and goals from education. They spoke about how school and college gave them a new, different space away from home to explore themselves and the world, to seek and create friendships and romance, and to build a new sense of self. They spoke about how school built their confidence and a set of life skills beyond academics. The girls also talked about the improved livelihood options that getting an education or a degree provided to them.

Girls’ demands for education

Following the panel discussion, the girls shared their demands for improving their education and lives. The demands were also reiterated in a film made by Abhivyakti in collaboration with the girls. This list of demands are:

  • Provision of schools up to Std 12 in each village with decent infrastructure and safe access (for example, roads, public transport)
  • Livelihood training for girls, such as training in technical and 21st century skills designed to equip girls for alternative livelihoods. This would be available alongside career guidance, especially towards first generation learners
  • Library access for girls in each village to provide a non-formal learning centre for girls and women. Library spaces to be provided by the gram panchayat (a village council with governing responsibilities)
  • Priority given to girls’ health and wellbeing. This would include regular free health check-ups and counselling services, access to scientific information about sexual and reproductive health, free sanitary and menstrual products in schools, colleges, and government clinics, regular provision of a nutritious diet, and special attention to girls’ mental health
  • Zero tolerance to violence and harassment. Girls should be able to move freely and without fear in their villages
  • No marriage without the girl’s consent. Strict action to be taken by the Gram Panchayat against early and coerced marriages.

Following the panel discussion, members of the audience were invited to respond to the girls’ demands. The respondents applauded the girls for their courage to speak fearlessly and with clarity. As part of the Q&A, some of the respondents shared useful advice for improving the local service delivery of education, such as demanding safety audits from their village councils and information about government schemes and funds to support their education.

When asked for their feedback on the event and what they had learned from the girls, attendees shared the following highlights:

‘I extend my admiration and congratulations to the girls for the courage to speak, the determination to make a change, and the commitment to no longer be silenced – which is the theme of today’s gathering – Voice it Out.’

‘I learned about the specificities of the prevailing issues and challenges faced by girls and young women in rural India in accessing education. Listening to the girls, I understood just how deeply entrenched patriarchy and discriminatory practices are. These outdated perspectives must transform as they serve as barriers that impede girls and young women from fulfilling their right to education and from being self-sufficient and from discovering their own capacities.’

‘The girls’ journey itself touched my heart totally… From facing the lack of educational and other opportunities, to coming on such a forum and discussing things so openly and confidently is my biggest takeaway. There is so much to learn from the girls about how we can transform our lives 180°.’

Recasting girls as knowing and agentic subjects

At the event close, all attendees representing institutional stakeholders in girls’ education policy and programming committed to taking the girls’ stories and demands back to the work they were doing and to the diverse spaces they were part of to seek ways to activity respond through sensitive policy and programme development.

The Voice it Out event aimed to initiate a rethink of how girls are perceived and engaged within policy and programmatic frameworks. The event hoped to change the perception of girls as knowing and agentic subjects and to spark further thinking around ways to support them to fulfil their educational aspirations and opportunities.

Towards this goal, Sakhi believes the event succeeded in setting a precedent for not just including, but also centring, the voices of the most marginalised girls and demonstrating how they are the starting point for policy-making on girls’ education. She also feels the event has started a conversation on how education provision can effectively deal with new realities and new challenges in the post-COVID era.