I was welcomed to IDF by Jyoti Singh, the organisation’s secretary; who also took me pillion on his scooter out of central Agra to Garhi Bhadoria. Located on the outskirts of the city, Garhi Bhadoria is a village where IDF runs a school. This school is one of six that IDF works with keeping in line with their thrust area of sponsoring the education of the girl child. Efforts for the same began in 2011, through the launched of their ‘Honhar Ladki’ (A promising girl) campaign. The program sponsor girls from poor and slum areas for their education into formal schools. Impact studies by IDF show that the program has significantly decreased the school dropout rate which is a large problem in these communities as a girls education is not prioritised due to social dogma and cultural traditions. This program pays for the education of the girl, as well as uniforms, stationary and other study-related needs. The girls on this program are closely watched and their academic progress as well as social well-being is monitored.
I was fortunate to meet some of the mothers of the girls who had benefitted from this initiative, during my visit. Being a young woman myself, that too a foreigner, you can imagine how excited the mothers were, to talk to me and share their experiences. Through a translator, I learnt that they all greatly valued IDF’s help and acknowledged that without it their daughters would be at home now or married. They told me that this was not the life they wanted for their daughters and that they were now able to provide them with a better chance at life and not have to sacrifice their education due to poverty.
Although poverty is the cause of the girl child being forced to drop out of school, it is the cultural mindset that needs to be tackled. It is for this reason that IDF tends to target the mothers of girls as they are often uneducated themselves and thus aware of the disadvantages it brings. IDF’s team works in the slum areas and tries to persuade mothers to send their daughters to school. The staff highlights the need to break this cycle of poverty and a major pathway to doing it, is through education. They stress that with education their daughters can become self-sufficient and not be dependent on their husbands in the way that they have had to be. Interestingly, mothers of these girls have formed a community together and they regularly meet and socialise in an environment where they will not be judged for sending their daughters to school.
I also was privileged to be able to connect with some of the girls themselves. I spoke to 13-year-old Griti who is currently in the 4th standard. She, along with her two sisters, were forced to drop out of school when their father was injured in a road accident and could no longer bring in an income. They restarted when IDF started supporting the family. Griti told me that her favourite subject was English and that her dream is to become a teacher when she is older.
The ‘Honhar Ladki’ program has been hugely successful. It began with only 25 girls in 2011. Last year, 110 girls were sponsored; and by the end of this year,IDF aims to sponsor 300 girls.
Another vital part of IDF’s work is the non-formal education centre which they have set up in schools they are working with. They educate children who are waiting to be enrolled into formal education, and they usually spend a year in the non formal centre improving their skills. These children are all highly appreciative of IDF’s support as most have had to drop out at some point in their education due to a lack of funding and/or a lack of understanding of the importance of education. Another campaign is the government schools program which was launched in 2008‘Nayi Disha -Mujhe Padna Hai’ in which IDF ‘adopts’ schools to enhance the quality of their management and education. To date IDF have sponsored 5 government schools and are working on reforming them.
The latest ambition is to accomplish ‘Mission 2015’ which was set in the hope of reaching out to 20,000 people in underprivileged communities by 2015. In the words of Mr. Asthana – they aim to ‘reach out to the large masses’ who are in the direst need of help. IDF wants to keep its focus on girl child education and hopefully extend the sponsorship program to other schools in Uttar Pradesh and New Delhi. A prolonged vision is to continue working in slum areas to create awareness among parents to value the importance of a quality education.
As I sat around the office in the school with members of the IDF board and their founder Punit Asthana, it occurred to me that this was more than simply an NGO that did good deeds. It was personal to every member and they were just as satisfied as the beneficiaries. Their ethos of ‘share your dreams for a better tomorrow’ is admirable and one that can be seen unfolding in practice. During my IDF visit I was treated as a family member; in fact, when Punit learnt that I had not eaten breakfast, he was horrified and immediately called the wife of his childhood friend (a partner in the organisation) who promptly came down to the office with some home-cooked food. I very much admired the respect the board members held for each other and undoubtedly the organisation is in the hands of extremely caring and dedicated people.