When Mallika Govindan ’14 went to India for her cousin’s wedding, she received an invitation from the director of Pardada Pardadi Educational Society (PPES) to visit the society’s school in Anupshahr. Anupxshahr is a rural tehsil, similar to a county, in Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India. This visit led to her work at the school in August, an experience through which she realized how special, motivated and ambitious girls are in one of the most underserved areas in India.
Govindan illustrated an example of a conversation she had with one of her students who wanted to know more about marriage in the United States.
“She was really scared that her parents would marry her off when she gets 18, which is the legal marrying age in India,” Govindan said. To help the students explain their concerns and thoughts to their parents, Govindan engaged in role playing with the student in an imagined conversation between the student and her parents.
Director of PPES Renuka Gupta spoke on rural development through gender empowerment for a lecture hosted by UNICEF last Thursday. Nearly 30 Wellesley students and alums attended.
Yoori Kim ’15, co-president of Wellesley for UNICEF, said that her organization decided to host the event because girls’ education and empowerment is a topic in which Wellesley for UNICEF has always been interested.
“It’s a topic the entire Wellesley community is passionate about,” Kim explained. “And Gupta’s work in girls’ education is very interesting and important.”
Founded in 2000, PPES is an organization dedicated to improving the lives of females in rural India by empowering women from the poorest sectors of society through education and self help. In Hindi, “Pardada Pardadi” means “great-grandparents.” Gupta explained that the organization chose this name because the name reflects the importance of value-based education by family members for children. Similarly, the work of PPES extends beyond providing free basic education for girls. It aims to cultivate self-reliance in girls by teaching them values and principles that will help them grow into well-rounded women.
Because of traffic, Ms. Gupta could not join the lecture until 30 minutes after the event was set to begin. This unexpected situation, however, opened up a fresh perspective for attendees of the lecture. Mallika Govindan ’14, who is graduating in December, shared her personal experience of visiting PPES in Anupshahr.
Govindan explained that in Anupshahr, girls are the most vulnerable and least likely to receive an education. The PPES school works in over 60 villages in Anupshahr and educates girls in rural areas from grades K-12. In addition, the organization feeds them two meals and an evening snack each day, provides them with the care of a school nurse, a uniform, a bicycle and deposits 10 rupees a day in a savings account, which each student will gain access to upon graduation.
“In August, I was able to spend some time at the school, working with the school nurse and teaching classes on hygiene, nutrition and to the older students, puberty and menstrual health,” Govindan said. “I also visited local hospitals out of interest and also to collect vitamins and iron tablet donations for the students, and I accompanied some of the students and staff to visit their neighborhoods and meet a few of their families.”
Govindan said that, in total, she taught four to five classes per day, along with visits to the hospitals and to the neighborhoods where many of the girls come from.
“They’re really special girls, the most consistently focused and motivated classes that I’ve ever met, and they are also incredibly affectionate and close-knit.”
The students often possess huge ambitions to pursue further studies despite familial obligations to marry or take care of household affairs.
While some graduates work at the PPES school or attend vocational training, the majority of students look to pursue higher studies despite the heavy financial burden and difficulty of taking full loans.
“Their goals range from working in hospitality to becoming nurses to wanting to return to the school as teachers,” Govindan said. “I’m currently focused on trying to fundraise partial scholarships for these students, through an organization that I grew up volunteering in — the North South Foundation.”
As a biological sciences major and a minor in women’s and gender studies, Govindan said that her experience at PPES helped her understand how important it is to make a sustained commitment to working with young scholars.
“I now know that I really do want to go back and spend a few years at PPES,” Govinda said. “Hopefully, once I’ve completed more of my education, I can go back to Anupshahr with some medical training or skills, as well as a deeper knowledge of Hindi and be more valuable to the students.”
A member of Wellesley Association of South Asian Cultures, Wellesley for Caribbean Development and Wellesley Students for Justice in Palestine, Govindan believes that the goal of bringing Renuka Gupta to Wellesley was to get students motivated to fundraise and work for Pardada Pardadi over a sustained period of time.
To the delight of the audience, as Govindan’s fascinating story neared its end, Gupta arrived. After thanking Govindan, Gupta explained that PPES believes in four components in empowering women: education, community development, economic empowerment and health and hygiene. PPES does not simply believe in creating a school and waiting for students to show up.
Members of the organization go out into the villages and talk to the girls and their mothers in an effort to reduce their suspicion of what the school does to their daughters when they attend there.
The school already has 300 graduates, with 24 currently pursuing higher studies. This year, the school will have 32 graduates.
“India is a country with 1.25 billion people,” Gupta said. “And if 40 percent of that population is not an equal partner, that is a humongous waste of resources.”
Kim emphasized Gupta’s words, “Don’t just give ideas, but execute them,” which Gupta stressed toward the end of her talk. Kim said that, at Wellesley, there is plenty of space for discussions and ideas. “I find it fascinating how genuinely Wellesley students care about global development, poverty and inequality issues, and I think it’s what makes Wellesley a special place,” she explained. “But sometimes we just don’t act — maybe because we are too busy, maybe because we want to wait until life after Wellesley.”
This is the reason that Kim appreciated how Gupta encouraged students to take ownership of their thoughts and ideas and try to make these ideas become real.
“I hope events like this will make people pause for a moment and think about what they can do right now for something they are passionate about and how,” Kim concluded.
Similarly, Elin Nelson ’13, said that she was impressed to know the hard work and concrete steps Pardada Pardadi is taking toward meaningful social change.
“We hear so many negative things in the news about India and especially about the position of women in Indian society,” Nelson said. “It was very moving to learn about an organization run by an Indian woman for Indian women making tangible positive change.”
In particular, Nelson was amazed by how little money it took to provide the education and resources that completely transform the girls’ and women’s lives in the area.
“India is a country of over one billion people, about one sixth of the world’s population. Wellesley students are part of the world’s privileged, and have a responsibility to learn about what is going on in a country as big and important as India,” Nelson said. “I hope some of us Wellesley women will be able to take some kind of action to help combat these disturbing issues, which Indian women must face.”
Ananya Ghemawat ’17 said that she was impressed by the amount of love Gupta and her colleagues have for their organization.
“They came from literally half the world away to spread the news about their cause,” Ghemawat said.
The talk taught her that working on gender development can be one of the greatest assets in long-term community development, Ghemawat explained. In this respect, the talk brought awareness to issues that exist outside of Wellesley.
“It’s way too easy to just get stuck on what’s happening within the confines of our campus,” she said.
Cathy Zhang ’18, co-fundraising chair of Wellesley for UNICEF, said that Gupta was, for her, the physical embodiment of the change she wants to see.
“As a first year, I don’t yet have the ability to travel to those countries and create tangible change,” Zhang said. “But from where I am, I still have considerable influence in helping out with fundraising and spreading UNICEF’s message in my area.”
Zhang found it particularly important that Renuka did not emphasize what resources the children lacked.
“Rather, she was here to tell us of the hope and the positivity that has been integrated into their lives through Pardada Pardadi,” Zhang explained. “This is a celebration of hope. Without hope, there is no progress, and that was what I took most from her presentation.”
Photograph by Soojin Jeong ’17, Photography Editor