By: Kashay Sanders
About a week ago, I visited Ushassu ( a Telugu word which means “Morning Light”). The program is a part of the Women’s Education Project (WEP), based in New York City, and is one of three programs in India. WEP’s goal is to both, advocate for low-income young women to GO to college and then provide them with personal and professional development once they get there. The girls, from farming villages outside of Hyderabad, all attend the same college, dispersed among “regular” students, and then come together for programming which also includes field trips, speakers and computer-skills training.
When we heard about this unique take on women’s empowerment, the VOICE team felt we HAD to see this program in action. Last Thursday, I rode out to an organization called M. Venkatarangaiya Foundation, which oversees the WEP project in Hyderabad. We were met by a friendly staff member, who rode with us to the village where the program takes place.
I had never been that far on the outskirts of Hyderabad, excluding when I whizzed by these areas on a night bus to another city. Two lane city streets turned into a massive winding high way, and then into lush greenery as we made our way out of town. Finally, we came upon a tall stone building, and were ushered in.
I thought we would peek in on some classes and wander inconspicuously (as inconspicuous as foreigners can get anyway), through the building. However, when we got there, all of the girls in the program sat in one room. Up front, there was a table where my fellow foreign friend and I were expected to sit and… perhaps present?
What started slightly awkward soon turned into an interesting and honest dialogue. We asked the girls about their lives in the villages and what brought them here. We asked them about their favorite part of the program and what they learned there. And what they gave us in return was stories: they were getting their college degrees in biology and math. They wanted to become teachers or serve as doctors in their own community. They were currently giving free tutoring lessons after school for high school age students. Because the Ussashu team convinced their parents about the importance of girls’ education, they were allowed to attend college, whereas previously, their families had not even considered the possibility. Many of them traveled 20 kilometers or more to get to the college every day.
There is one girl I cannot forget.
We asked them what makes it hard to be a girl in their village sometimes. One girl stood up, said one sentence in Telugu, sat down, then broke into tears. Her friend reached out to rub her back, and console her. Their English teacher turned to us to explain, “She was pushed to get married when she was in 8th Standard”—so she was no older than twelve or thirteen years old. The trauma of the event was so strong, she had hardly said a word, and yet it threw her into emotional upheaval. My heart sank then, as I thought of the pain some women carry with them always. After the session, I tried to communicate to her how much I appreciated her sharing something so personal. She smiled, but I am unsure she understood.
I appreciate Ushassu giving these girls, who are otherwise unseen and unheard, a chance to be leaders in their own communities, a chance to develop a strong sense of self, a platform upon which to share what they’ve been through with others. These girls weren’t just a part of a program, they were friends, and that kind of female support network is a powerful piece of confidence building.