It’s not every day that you get to meet one of your all-time heroes, but it happened to me just last weekend when journalist Stephanie Nolen was briefly in Vancouver.
Thanks to my Mother’s influence I have been a Globe and Mail reader for most of my life. Stephanie’s writing first came to my attention when she donned a hijab and headed to out to cover the invasion of Afghanistan and fall of the Taliban.
Her knack for illustrating a macro-truth based on one person’s story immediately moved me, as well as her particular interest in the situation of girls and women. She was my kind of hero: brave, hugely talented, social justice-minded and up for adventure. As I said to Suzanne at the time, if I wasn’t already lucky enough to get to be me, I’d want to be Stephanie.
Speaking last weekend at a gathering hosted by 60 Million Girls, a Canadian charity that takes its name from the number of girls deprived of education in the developing world, Stephanie chose to focus on the story of some remarkable students and one determined activist at two unique schools in rural Bihar state in Northern India, taking as her starting point how “laughter and dignity”, as much as careers, independence and a wealthier and healthier life, are what girls miss out on when denied access to schooling. (The full story, including multiple feature articles and audi slideshows, are here.)
It was a point that landed well with the audience of seasoned leaders, educators and philanthropists already well aware of the benefits of educating girls. Stephanie first encountered the Prerna School for Mahadalit girls and its intrepid founder Sudha Varghese thanks to a tip from a friend. Following a lengthy search, she finally pushed open an unassuming gate and witnessed a rare sight in rural India: a green schoolyard of laughing, playing girls. The girls greeted her with a polite salutation before carrying on with their games, itself highly unusual for a tall, lone, female foreigner who typically drew curious crowds, not to mention low-caste girls, who would normally have shied away.
In and of themselves a rarity in India in general, these particular schoolgirls were an especially unlikely find, being as they are from the bottom of India’s caste system (“Mahadalit” basically translates as “lowest of the low”). “These girls have basically lost the global lottery,” in terms of social privilege, she explained, and was astounded to find an entire school dedicated to nourishing and educating them.
She went on to share Sudha’s story of determining to become as nun as one of the few ways to lead an independent life as a woman, learning of the plight of the Dalit people (also commonly known as “untouchable”) and determining to do what she could to support the most marginalized among them: girls.
Prerna means “inspiration”: the name of the school she founded on a shoestring in 2006, and inspiring indeed is the tale of how one woman has singlehandedly created two schools that now house and educate almost 200 girls. One of the most striking curriculum items is karate, a program where the girls have excelled to the point of winning local, state and even competitions in Japan!
Despite this extraordinary success, there are still massive challenges to be faced: often Prerna students are forced to get married when they return home to see their families, a common practice among their unschooled peers. Stephanie explained that while to Westerners the technically illegal practice of marrying off girls under 18 (most are married by the time they are 13) seems patently barbaric, to their parents it is doing their best to protect their daughters’ futures. Furthermore, while the Prerna girls may be getting an education, the rest of their society still sees them as inferior by virtue of both class and gender: what opportunities will they realistically have?
Lakshmi wants to be a judge, and Gunia, a teacher. Thanks to people like Sudha and Stephanie, they are far closer to those worthy goals than they ever would have been otherwise. Here’s hoping that they are the tip of a massive landslide of educated girls who fulfill the promise of the “Incredible India!” tourist billboards. Oh and hey: it only costs $200 to support one of Sudha’s students for a year. Email Stephanie if you want to help: firstname.lastname@example.org.