‘Mentorship for girls offers an alternative vision’
Thirteen-year-old Bhavna Pandey from Hyderabad aspires to be an Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer. Nothing extraordinary about that ambition except for Pandey’s circumstances: she studies at the St Albert High School, described as a “budget private school” by its principal, B Sunitha Kumari. Most of the students’ parents are daily wage earners, or blue collar workers like Pandey’s father, who is a driver. During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the school struggled to get funds to deliver groceries to the families, who were hard-hit by the lockdown. Yet for Pandey, it was the pandemic that kindled her ambition.
In 2018, Varsha Adusumilli, a BITS-Pilani graduate and entrepreneur wrote a book called Wonder Girls, which told the stories of 15 young women who had chosen jobs and careers despite the odds stacked against them. I was struck by the book and felt convinced that every Indian girl must read it. Concurrently, Soumya Jain, the founder of iTeach Schools, an educational not for profit, expressed an interest in introducing the Wonder Girls book as part of the secondary school curriculum. When an opportunity to teach the book in classrooms arose, I offered to sponsor the provision of 5000 copies. The same year, Varsha started the Wonder Girls Foundation Programme in partnership with fellows at education non-profits Teach For India and iTeach.
The teaching fellows taught the book along with the school curriculum to educate adolescent high schoolers about young female role models from diverse professions. In the pandemic, the Wonder Girls team moved the programme online to facilitate direct classroom interaction with role models: since August 2020, over 250 individual sessions have been conducted with 92 teachers in schools across the country.
Pandey and her classmates had an hour-long live call each with five women — an IAS officer, a scientist, an actor, a flight commander and a software engineer based in the United States and working for a search engine giant. One of these five speakers was Apurva Pandey, an IAS officer who scored 39th rank in the Union Public Service Commission who made quite an impression on the teenager.
“We could see the challenges that these women have faced in their lives. Our families have suffered a lot of losses due to the pandemic. But these women motivated our children in such a way that they started dreaming big, and felt more confident,” Pandey’s principal, Kumari said.
The importance of encouraging young women cannot be stressed upon enough especially as the pandemic has seen women fall off the grid from the formal and informal workforce as well as the classroom.
The State of Working India 2021: One year of Covid-19, a report by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at the Azim Premji University finds that “women were much more likely to lose jobs and much less likely to recover than men. .. While 61 per cent of men followed the no-effect [employment] trajectory over this period, the corresponding figure for women was only 19 per cent. Further, while only 7 per cent of men followed a no-recovery trajectory, the figure for women was 47 per cent. Women were also much more likely to also experience a delayed job loss even after the lockdown relative to men.” The report was based on data collected by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), which tracked labour participation rates in both the formal and informal work sectors.
As early as March 2020, the UNESCO warned that the “economic hardships caused by the crisis will have spill-over effects as families consider the financial and opportunity costs of educating their daughters... Education responses must prioritize the needs of adolescent girls’ at the risk of reversing 20 years of gains made for girls’ education.” Millions of Indian adolescent girls are vulnerable to early marriage, trafficking and violence; the Covid pandemic has only exacerbated the conditions in which such practices would flourish.
Given what faces young women of the country, how can a mentorship programme really help? It is imperative for young women as well as the systems within which they operate -- schools, peer networks, families and broader communities -- to recognise their capacity and capability. Encourage adolescent girls to aim higher, show them that alternatives are possible.
“Just randomly saying, ‘I want to become an IAS officer’ and working towards it, are two different things. Apurva Pandey shared all the preparations she went through to become an IAS officer, from fifth grade onwards. She gave a lot of good advice which some are following,” Kumari said.
A 2017 study by the Girl Scout Research Institute in the United States, which could be considered a proxy programme, finds that “having a supportive adult in Girl Scouts is especially beneficial for girls of lower socioeconomic status (SES). In our study, lower-SES Girl Scouts were significantly more likely than lower-SES non–Girl Scouts to say they have an adult in their lives who helps them pursue their goals,” which is essential to career success.
“I see sustainable impact. The programme has opened a dialogue, and a space for different conversations apart from academics. It is a good platform to talk about how well women are doing in different fields,” says Varalakshmi Ayyagari, a former Teach for India fellow who taught the programme in Hyderabad.
Individual stories of gritty hopefuls, such as Pandey, routinely make the headlines in India. What is needed is sustained social and economic mobility for all adolescent girls and young women.
(The author is a columnist with Mint, author and senior advisor to the Wonder Girls programme).