A Life She Chose

Most girls growing up in poverty in India have one of two choices: marry young or work as a domestic helper while their brothers go to school. But Ashwini believed in herself, and so did her sponsor.

Seventeen-year-old Ashwini could be married right now. She could have a baby and stay at home cooking and cleaning all day for a husband she didn’t choose and doesn’t particularly like.

Or, Ashwini could be working full time as a “domestic helper” — as a maid in the home of a family that has no problem employing an underage girl who should be in school.

If Ashwini had a brother, she might have had to watch him go to school every day while she stayed home and helped with housework.

For thousands of girls growing up in poverty in India, these are their choices.

But Ashwini chose a different path.

This past year, Ashwini graduated to the 11th grade, or what’s known as “junior college” in India. Rarely do children from her community, an impoverished neighborhood in Bangalore, India, ever get this far. But Ashwini stands out not just because she is a stellar student who comes from a poor part of town. She stands out because she is a girl growing up in a place where life is not the same for girls as it is for boys.

“In India, even today there are several sections where the girl child is treated as a burden,” says Jessy Job, a social worker and the former executive director of Vathsayla Charitable Trust (VCT), Holt’s long-time partner in Bangalore. “The boys are given privileges and girls are restricted from going to school. The parents send them to work in homes as domestic help or get them married at a young age. There are very little or no opportunities for the girls from the low socioeconomic communities to learn and grow in life.”

Ashwini worked uncommonly hard in school. But like so many of the paths we follow in life, Ashwini did not get there on her own. She had parents who showed an uncommon interest in and dedication to educating their daughter. But they could not have sent her to school without the kindness and compassion of one person — a person who dutifully paid for Ashwini’s fees and uniforms and books and supplies for five years of her education.

Ashwini’s sponsor.

Seven years ago, when Ashwini was 10 years old, her parents learned about Holt and VCT’s educational sponsorship program through another family whose child had a Holt sponsor in the U.S. Once a child care center that worked alongside Holt to find adoptive families for orphaned and abandoned children, VCT has in recent years shifted its focus to serving vulnerable children and families through education. In 2014, VCT started a daycare and informal school for the children of families who migrate from city to city in search of work. But long before that, in 2001, VCT began allying with Holt sponsors in the U.S. to send children, especially girls like Ashwini, to school.

“This successful program is to offer sponsorship for those students who show good progress and potential, but due to their background and lack of finance would be unlikely to continue in school,” Jessy says. “Many children are required to leave early to help out at home or in the fields, for example due to poverty or loss of a family member.”

Ashwini still has both her parents, but her mother doesn’t work and her father earns very little as an office assistant. They live in a rented home and their monthly income is not sufficient to meet their needs — especially the high cost of educating their daughter. At night, Ashwini shares a cot with her mother while her father sleeps on a mat in the hallway.

Ashwini with her mother and father. When they heard about Holt sponsorship, Ashwini’s parents reached out to VCT and both actively support Ashwini in her studies.

An only child, Ashwini never had to face the possibility of her parents sending her brother to school while she stayed home and learned to run a household. With such devotion to their daughter, her parents may not have made this choice anyway.

But this devotion to educating their daughter is rare in Ashwini’s neighborhood, where most girls are forced to drop out early and marry by age 15 or 16.

In some communities, this is changing — especially those around the eight schools in Bangalore where kids receive monthly support from Holt sponsors.

Some of the change is occurring organically. As more and more women become educated in these communities, they continue the cycle for their daughters — lifting up another generation of women.

Some of the change has come, however, from deliberate efforts on the part of VCT staff. They hold workshops for parents, many of whom are illiterate, in which they teach basic hygiene, nutrition, parenting skills and most of all the importance of educating their daughters as well as their sons. They teach women and girls about protecting themselves from — and reporting — the sexual violence that is so common in their communities. They talk about child labor and the rights of children, and they encourage parents to hold off on marriage for their daughters until they have fully developed and graduated from high school.

As a result of these trainings, VCT has contributed to lower dropout rates as well as fewer incidences of child marriage and child labor in the communities where they work.

“The families have shown tremendous changes through the education sponsorship program,” says Jessy, who also spent many years as the training coordinator at VCT. Ashwini’s mom never finished her education, but she attends the workshops and trainings that VCT offers for parents of kids in sponsorship — and she encourages her daughter in her studies, hopeful that she will live out her potential in a way that she never had the chance herself.

“They are sure about [Ashwini] achieving her dreams,” Jessy says of Ashwini’s mom and dad.

But none of this would be possible without Holt donors and sponsors like Ashwini’s.

“The girl child education support has shown a tremendous impact in the life of each child from the time they were brought under the program,” says Jessy. “The children are able to complete the tenth grade successfully through the support provided.”

In India, most children in educational sponsorship are girls who would otherwise drop out of school early to help earn income for their family, take care of younger siblings or learn household duties before marrying at age 15 or 16.

In India, high school is considered complete at the end of 10th grade, and VCT strives to ensure every child in sponsorship graduates high school. But when a student shows such distinction as Ashwini, VCT will look for a way to continue supporting her through junior college — and possibly beyond.

Ashwini scored so well on her final exams that she was able to attend the junior college of her choice — a fact reported to her sponsor in the U.S.

“She had her monthly test recently and was thrilled to see her report as she scored 96.97%,” reads an update received by her Holt sponsor — someone who has for years watched from afar and cheered on Ashwini as she achieved her goals. “Ashwini scored full marks in statistics and business studies. She is very happy to join the college of her choice.”

As Holt sponsorship goes through 10th grade only, VCT worked to find Ashwini a local sponsor in India who will support her through junior college.

Once she earns her degree, Ashwini has big plans. While girls with a 10th grade education can look forward to jobs as receptionists, beauticians or in one of the many call centers in Bangalore’s booming IT sector, Ashwini hopes to become an accountant — a job for which her test scores show she is very well suited. Last year, Ashwini won second place in a speech competition at school, and this last March she received a merit certificate for scoring the highest grades on her midterm exam.

In one recent sponsorship report, our partner wrote that Ashwini’s greatest strength is “her belief in herself.”

For a girl who grew up in a Bangalore slum, this belief could have died early, along with any hope for a future crafted of her own ideals and ambitions. But instead, this belief was nurtured — nurtured by the love and devotion of Ashwini’s parents, and by the compassion and generosity of another person who also believed that a bright girl from a Bangalore slum could achieve great things if only given the chance.

This support has not gone unacknowledged.

“Her parents always expressed their heartfelt thanks to the generous sponsors for supporting Ashwini and helping her to complete her schooling,” Jessy says.

Right now, Ashwini might be studying for an exam. She might be listening to her favorite Hindi songs or riding her bike or watching her favorite Bollywood dance show on TV. She often cooks ­— not because it’s expected of her, but because she enjoys it. She loves to visit her grandparents and she has many friends with whom she shares her innermost secrets. She goes to the school that she chose from the many good schools that would have accepted her, and she takes two buses to get their in the morning.

She believed in herself.

And because others believed in her, too, Ashwini is now pursuing the life of which she dreamed. A life she chose.

Robin Munro | Managing Editor

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