‘We need to build a society where girls are as wanted as boys’

Aarti for Girls was founded on this principle; a chat with founder Sandhya Puchalapalli

IN 1977, Sandhya Puchalapalli, an English teacher in her early twenties, moved to Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh, with her husband and two young girls. Working as a government high school teacher, Sandhya became painfully aware of the discrepancies between male and female children in the Kadapa district.

Many of the girls she taught and interacted with in her community were forced into early marriages, taken out of school to work as domestic help as early as aged six, and lacked educational or vocational opportunities. Girls were prepared for a reality of marriage after secondary school and likely frequent domestic abuse.

Sandhya and the other concerned teachers helped in small ways, such as raising money for the nominal school fees that many students often could not afford, but Sandhya was deeply disturbed and saddened by the bleak futures offered to the girls.

In 1992, a washerwoman approached Sandhya with a two-year-old girl, Radhika, who had been abandoned on the streets of Kadapa. Her father had killed her mother in yet another case of domestic violence, and he had abandoned the child. Triggered by the past injustices she had seen, Sandhya decided that she would foster the girl.

​This defining moment marked the beginning of a life’s work. After taking the baby in, Sandhya, her young nieces, and her friends (Sunita, Durga, and Vimala) decided to establish a home for a few abandoned girls. At this time, they had simple goals: to give these girls a home, support their education, and teach them that they are valuable. Soon, community members from all walks of life stepped up to support their cause. From these humble roots, Aarti For Girls was born.

As part of our new series Lead Read (quick catch-ups with thought leaders in the social sector) we had a conversation with Sandhya about her 30-year journey with Aarti for Girls and where she stands now.

Q. What is the most heart-touching thing that has happened to you through your NGO?

In 2015, we started a project with the European Union to change the attitudes of society towards girl children. This project envisaged us reaching 1,500 villages of Kadapa district, working on the ground to enable girl’s education and women leadership so that we change our girl child ratios.

As we were starting the project, four girls came to me saying that they wanted to take a gap year after their 12th grade so that they can work on the project. I was worried as I did not want these children to miss out on their education. The children were insistent saying that they did not want a world where more mothers were forced to abandon their children like their mothers were. The children convinced me and I agreed hesitantly.

The children put their heart and soul into changing attitudes through 1,540 village meetings reaching half a million people, role modelled by telling their stories, and educating women about their rights. They were able to stop more than 300 sex selective abortions, school enrolment has increased by 2% amongst girls ever since then and has brought about an overall change in the attitudes of thousands around them.

I am so happy that the little beginning that we did has enabled these children to make it much larger. 

Q. When would you say that you have accomplished what you set out to do? As in what goal would you have to get to?

Soon after starting Aarti Home, I realized that our problems are much larger than I ever imagined- I saw girls being abandoned because they were girls; being denied education because dowries for educated girls are much higher; women abused because they were women, and mothers killed because they were birthing daughters. Our girl child ratios are 919 girls to 1000 boys, ie we kill one in 10 girls before they are 5.

A strong capable mother would mean that we would have a lower need for ‘Aarti Homes’. We have trained 30,000 women in entrepreneurial and leadership skills, created mandal level support groups for women in Kadapa and Chittoor districts and reached 4,00,000 women on their rights. We have launched an app on women’s rights. With all this we have been able to move the girl child ratio in Kadapa district from 919 to 938 according to government statistics.

However, I believe that we are far from where we need to be. We need to build a society where girls are as wanted as boys, girls are given the opportunities to be whatever they want and define their own destinies. Our journey has just begun!

Q.  Who is Sandhya Puchalapalli outside Aarti for girls?

I am a grandmother who loves to read and teach English literature. My grandson asks me for help in reading and understanding poetry and drama. I have been both thrilled and energized by the literature that children get to read. I am particularly enjoying reading and analyzing Crucible by Arthur Miller.

I also have a terrible sweet tooth that I share with my grandchildren.

Q. What 3 things help you stay active and motivated?

I enjoy spending time connecting with friends and family. I do think, while COVID created pain and misery, it brought people together in their need to connect with family and friends

I try and do yoga twice a week

I watch movies with my niece, Mytri, who always recommends the best ones.

Q. What word of advice would you like to give to someone who wants to join the social sector?

Smallest of good deeds is greater than the grandest of good intentions. I would ask them to start. Once you start, you will figure out

Interviewed by Abhishek Pde


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