Stories from the Field – Missing Exams for…

By: Kashay Sanders

I am doing research for VOICE that requires me to go to VOICE-schools in Hyderabad, and better understand how the program may have improved their academic performance. This includes interviewing girls, as well as looking at their attendance and grade records for the past few years. Yesterday, I visited a school where one girl positively RADIATED. She was clearly bright and boldly spoke English. She remembered who I was and my name (which is by no means easy) from my last visit.  When asked what subject she was not confident in, she said, “No subject.” Alright!

After the interview we looked at her records and saw a big, red absent where her marks for the big quarterly exam should be. This didn’t add up.

In Indian schools, there are three big exams in a year: the quarterly (around September), the half-yearly (around January) and the annual (around March/April). Teachers and students look frenzied during exam time—teachers are nervous about their students’ performance and how it will reflect on them; children sit in class, trying to memorize material, muttering to themselves incessantly. Exams-time is like a force-field around Indian schools—no one from the outside (i.e. me) is allowed in and no one, from the inside is allowed out (figuratively, of course).

Given this, we were surprised that such an ambitious girl had missed her exams. “What happened?” I asked the teacher who was assisting us.

“Oh. She got her period for the first time on that day, and had to go home.”

My friend, who was helping me, and I were flabbergasted. “Because of her period…? Will she get to make it up?”

Seeing our reactions, the teacher jumped, “Well, I-I want her to…but I am not sure…they will allow her. But they probably will. She is a good student.”

“But…so for that…,” We protested somewhat. “So she’ll get a zero?”

The teacher explained that, given the girl is a good student, she will likely be OK. She then went on to tell us that, after that day, the girl was missing from school for about 15 days, as it was a tradition to do so in her community after the first period.

Well then.

My friend and I sat in silence, struggling with the implications of the event. This is a classic struggle for the girls and women I have encountered here—how does one forward themselves in a way that will guarantee intellectual and economic independence while also maintaining and respecting the beliefs and traditions of their home communities? It isn’t VOICE’s place to tell girls what they should and should not do in this regard, but to provide girls with the tools to be able to understand the forces at play in their lives and measure their own agency to play with, and alter those forces.

For the short term, I breathed a sigh of relief that this girl has enough rapport with her teachers and management that the zero grade will, likely, not count against her.

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Organization Spotlight – Girls for A Change

Girls For A Change (GFC) is a national organization that empowers girls to create social change. They invite young women to design, lead, fund and implement social change projects that tackle issues girls face in their own neighborhoods.  GFC works to accomplish its vision through various programming including Girl Action Teams, New Girls Network, GFC Action Network, and an annual Girl Summit conference.   In 2009-2010, Girls For A Change served over 1,860 girls in ten states in India, Rwanda, and Swaziland. In Fall 2010, in their partnership with Kotex, they presented a special training to 800 girls in six cities to help girls understand how they can make change for themselves and their communities, removing the mystique and shame around their bodies. In 2010-2011, Girls For A Change engaged over 1,200 girls, ages 11 – 18, and 200 women volunteers on Girl Action Teams and Change Your World Trainings.

Girls for A Change Staff

(Interview conducted with Lori Fitzmaurice)

What problem is Girls for a Change solving?
As part of GFC, I feel we are solving one of the key issues that face every girl, regardless of circumstance or background – the pressure to lower her voice, doubt herself at times, and be influenced by others vs. forging her own path at a critical time in her life.

What is the most valuable resource to you in the work you’re doing?
The girls themselves. At GFC, we say that girls are creative, resourceful, and whole, just as they are. The primary tenet of our program is that girls lead the process, they have the answers, and our job as adults is to create and hold a safe place for them to believe in the power of their voice and the wisdom of their ideas.

What is one piece of advice you would like to offer someone doing similar work?
Listen. That is the most powerful thing we can do with our colleagues, our children and our volunteers. Listen to the collective wisdom and find ways to lift each other up.

Who has been the most influential person in your life as you are working to make a difference?
My mother and father were very involved in social justice when I was young – we participated heavily in the fight for farmworker’s rights in the 70’s as well as anti-war and anti-nuclear movements. However, this was just what we did – it wasn’t grand and large, it was small and diligent; it made it a part of who I was vs. being something “special”. It’s just what we did. I feel lucky to have had that in my life. Now, my daughter inspires me because she has reminded me to listen to her wisdom. Whitney Smith, our CEO and Founder is very inspiring; she has worked tirelessly and created something incredibly special where women and girls come together to support each other and where girls can truly be heard.

What is an experience you’ve had that has made you stay motivated in the work you’re doing?
It’s funny, having had a private sector career, I could easily make twice or more back in a corporate environment.  The moment I began working in non-profit, especially with youth, my heart grew to love this work – this is my life and makes me a better person, a better contributor, and especially, a better parent.

How can people join you in what you’re doing?
There are so many wonderful programs across the world – I encourage everyone to call programs to see if they can observe and then commit to volunteering. We welcome women as coach volunteers and also men as board members – we believe in the power everyone brings to this mission.

About Lori –  Lori Fitzmaurice is the Chief Operating Officer, responsible for development and oversight of all fundraising, operational and program activities within the organization. Lori brings over 25 years of management and development experience to her role. Most recently the Director of Development at Keys School, a growing independent school in Palo Alto, Lori also served as Director of Fundraising Events for the San Francisco Zoological Society, and Director of Development for The Center for Grieving Children, the first children’s grief support program on the East Coast. As a Senior Director at Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. she honed her project management skills across myriad disciplines, including marketing, strategic planning, customer service, and information systems. While at Schwab, she also managed the Boston and Lexington, Massachusetts offices as Vice President and Branch Manager. Lori is mom to teen Caitlin Rose and lives in Santa Cruz with her two dogs. 

For more information about Girls for a Change visit: http://www.girlsforachange.org/, http://twitter.com/Girlsforachange