Interlinked Podcast by Ashika Thomas
“Stories like mine were considered an exception, not the expectation.”
I recently had a chance to have a conversation with Ashweetha Shetty, the Founder of Bodhi Tree Foundation. Its aim is to bridge the urban-rural divide in education. A fervently discussed topic in the policy space is the gap between policy making and the actual results on the ground. It is to understand this problem in the context of education, that I reached out to Ashweetha.
When asked about the barriers that girls face in education, she replied that apart from the well-known problems of access which plagues rural education, her students often mention problems of money and lack of support from their family. “They’ll all always be telling us about somebody in their family, somebody outside, or somebody who did not encourage them [to attend school].” Another common reason, Ashweetha revealed, was the presence of brothers, in which case , the girl’s education was compromised.
“The transformation in the mindset of the parents of the girl children is clear.” Ashweetha says. “When I compare the interactions I used to have back in 2014 to today… it appears that parents believe sending their child to attend sessions in organizations like Bodhi Tree helps them dream big.” Ashweetha talked about her own experience and how she had to move out of her village to actually learn how the world functioned. “I think a big problem is the lack of role models. I think if one person gets educated, if one person moves up economically, the social discrimination (that comes along with being from a rural background) also goes away.” Our discussion turned to an important point about the positive domino effect which education has, especially in the close-knit communities of rural India. Ashweetha spoke about her students who graduated from colleges and came back to Bodhi Tree to contribute to their community. They kept the positive cycle going.
Misconceptions in policy-making was the next point of discussion. Ashweetha had a contention with education parameters solely being based on numbers. Like that in the Human Development Index (HDI). She doesn’t think measures or predictions like, ‘the number of years a girl child will stay in school’ is apt in the Indian context. This is because the quality of education is poor, especially in public schools in rural education. As mentioned earlier by Ashweetha, money is one of the most common barriers mentioned by children in rural areas. It’s not about the numbers, Ashweetha says, “Even if you get educated for 20 years of your life or 21 years of your life, there is no way you’re going up. I will not improve as a person.” She believes that rural education is very sheltered and the children are not given the right exposure to match up to those in urban areas. She puts in her own experience studying around 2000 km away from her family. “Higher education helped me to think, to make choices for my own self, and take charge, something which is lacking in rural education.” Additionally, Ashweetha suggested that she has seen the blended learning system (vocational and conventional) work out the best as per her experience at Bodhi Tree. This is especially due to the current pandemic as education has taken an online mode, and education in rural areas have almost come to a stand still.
She believes in collaborating with the local government to further the mission of the foundation. As an NGO, of course Bodhi Tree is an independent organization wanting to make a change, but collaborating with the government has its advantages and it helps further their goals. It provides a larger platform. This collaboration also provides credibility as per Ashweetha, “For example, we work with children of sanitation workers. So as an Indian organization, it is so difficult to establish credibility to a community, which, in ways, is oppressed…I think working with the local government helps you gain credibility, to the beneficiaries of the communities you want to work with.”
This discussion with Ashweetha brought about various on ground issues of rural education especially for girls and hopefully, going forward, we get to hear more stories like hers, from all over India.
This Interlinked Podcast was conducted by Ashika Thomas. It features Ashweetha Shetty, founder of Bodhi Tree Foundation.
Image credits – Pratham