A village in rural West Bengal, India, where as early as February the temperature goes up to 35 degrees Celsius or so every day, with no prospect of rain until April or May, is about as far from a Montreal winter as one can imagine. It’s where I have just spent four weeks working with several gifted and enthusiastic young women who teach at supplemental schools run by a local NGO, the Institute of Social Work (ISW). Like many NGOs across India and in the developing world, ISW works in the local language (here, Bengali) and draws mostly on local resources. My cousin Nupur Sarkar has been part of ISW since its inception in 1978; I am much indebted to her for having made it possible for me to spend time at ISW’s Birbhum-district schools. After a previous visit in 2019, I wrote about the experience here on the BILD blog, and have dreamed ever since then of coming back and staying awhile.
The schools have to call themselves “supplemental” because, on paper, all children in India have access to free public education at government schools. In practice, village children may not live close enough to the nearest school, or may not be able to get there and back safely; their families may need their labour. There are any number of reasons why, despite gains in the past decade, one person out of four cannot read or write. This is an average; in many states, including West Bengal, the literacy rate for women is much lower than for men.
In this mostly agricultural area in Birbhum district (about 150 km northwest of Kolkata, the state capital), many children would not have been able to complete their education without the help provided by the ISW centres, as teacher Shraboni Mondal tells us:
“I studied at the ISW Chella centre from the age of 10 on, and, after going on to college, graduated with an M.A. in history in 2022. If I have been able to get this far, it was because of ISW. I have now been teaching in the ISW centres for five years. Every day 75 students come to the Chella centre; we provide them with free books, exercise books, pens, slates, and also with a free nutritious snack every day. These are village children; their parents are mostly agricultural labourers. We are trying to give the children the chance to get an education and achieve something in life.”
Chhanda Bashuri, now completing her Bachelor of Education degree, teaches at the Chella centre as well as at another ISW centre at Dighirpar, and adds:
“We also encourage the children to pursue outside interests. Every Sunday we give extra classes in drawing and poetry.”
The Dighirpar centre is one of three other centres that ISW established recently in villages near Chella, where a donation originally enabled the organization to purchase a small plot of land and build the first classroom in 2008. Thanks to other generous donors, there are now several structures at the Chella site. The original intent had been to set up a clinic to provide better health care to the villagers, but it quickly became apparent that keeping girls in school for longer, therefore out of the cycle of very early marriage and childbearing that is common local practice, would be the best way to empower women to improve their health and that of their families.
All the ISW teachers I met and worked with are “local girls,” young women now in their early twenties who themselves started out as very young children at the Chella school fifteen years ago. Titli Das Bairagya, from the neighboring village of Kamarpara, teaches along with Bharati Mirdha at the Halsidanga centre, a short bicycle ride away. As she points out, “The children are from very poor families; their parents are field hands or menial labourers. Some of them don’t have enough to eat. It makes a difference that we give them snacks and milk on a regular basis.”
“There are 51 students at the Halsidanga centre,” added Bharati. “There are some brick or concrete houses in the village, but many people live in mud huts.”
Bharati’s older sister Puspa and their cousin Aduri Mirdha both teach at the fourth centre, in Gopalnagar, where, as Puspa explains, “ISW opened a centre because the Chella centre was too far for children in remote villages to come. Most of the children are from Adivasi [Indigenous] families.” In this part of West Bengal, that means they are Santali, speaking a language with its own script, Ol Chiki.
Puspa and Aduri wrote their story together and made sure their text reached me on my final day with the teachers, though Puspa and Bharati weren’t able to come—it can be difficult even for young unmarried women to get away from their domestic duties at home.
But Titli, Aduri, Shraboni and Chhanda came and worked on the spot. It was hard to say goodbye…
…so I am going to come back as soon as Nupur and I can manage it, if only to see what these young women get up to in two, three or five years’ time. They may be the first generation in their families to pursue higher education; I predict that they will not be the last. Hard work on the ground teaching literacy skills, by organizations like ISW all across India and the rest of South Asia, as well as access to the internet even in remote areas via smartphones (all the young teachers have smartphones, a very wise investment) and, most of all, the solidarity built across generations of women working together to win control over their lives, are combining to make a different future possible for women and girls in the developing world.
Many thanks to my cousin-sister Nupur Sarkar for making it possible for me to work with the ISW Chella teachers in February 2023, and to my niece Manjari Roy Chowdhury for coming along with me the last few days, to meet the teachers and to help with translation.
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