From being termed a fly-by-night operator to being accused of corrupting the minds of Muslims, Wahed Chowhan heard it all. However, societal opposition could not dither his resolve to educate the girl child in Sikar, Rajasthan. An ENN report
he fact that education is important for everyone is not a new discovery. The understanding that it is especially significant for girls and women is also not new. We now know that education does not only act as an entry point to other opportunities, it can have ripple effects within the family and across generations. It is a globally recognised fact that investing in girls’ education is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty. Consider this in the context of the following example from Rajasthan.
Fifteen years ago, Wahid Chowhan, a social worker of Mumbai who hails from Sikar was on a visit to his hometown in Rajasthan. About forty per cent of the local population here consists of Muslims. There was something peculiar that he found during this visit. There was not a single school for girls in the entire area, there were only Madrasas. When Wahid confronted people running the boys’ schools seeking reasons behind such a mismatch, his query was lightly brushed aside with a strange logic – “There is no need for girls to go to school. Madrasas are enough for them.”
It is a sad irony that women’s literacy rates have been significantly lower than men’s in most developing countries, including India. The reasons behind this trend become aptly clear from Wahid’s experience in Sikar. The absence of any recognition to the importance of girls’ education and an absolute lack of interest in the idea of a girls’ school in Sikar prompted Wahid to take the challenge of making a fine school for girls, imparting formal and mainstream education upon himself and soon constructted a beautiful six-storied school building.
“People were persistently cynical, many laughed at what they termed his ‘foolishness’ and said that no parents would send their girls to school. In fact, the opposition stemmed from all quarters including community leaders, who kept warning parents against sending their daughters to school, saying that their girls would become ‘spoilt’ and would be converted to Christians and Jews if they were sent to this school”
He did what he set out to do. But the journey was not easy. People were persistently cynical, many laughed at what they termed his ‘foolishness’ and said that no parents would send their girls to school. In fact, the opposition stemmed from all quarters including community leaders, who kept warning parents against sending their daugters to school, saying that their girls would become ‘spoilt’ and would be converted to Christians and Jews if they were sent to this school.
Regardless, he started the Excellence Girls’ School in 1997 with 30 students and within 5 years, the school was filled to capacity. Sensing the acceptance, Wahid did not stop there. He obtained a larger piece of land on which he planned an Excellence Knowledge City. This campus currently has four buildings being used at full capacity, with ten more to go. The institution can today boast of 3,000 girls receiving school and college education completely free of cost, including books and uniforms.
Today, the Excellence group is recognised as an educational institution based on secular principles working towards improving the lot of the deprived girl child through formal and practical education of a high standard which was, before this, largely inaccesthemselves into Secondary and Senior Secondary schools, thus bringing under the umbrella of formal education, almost 25,000 girls in the region,” says Chowhan.
Wahid makes another vital point. “If every region in Rajasthan covering 2 or 3 districts can make even one institution on the lines of the Excellence School & Colleges, a beginning will be made and, in due course, create an impact in the entire region,” he says. People with the drive and courage can take the initiative to develop and upgrade existing Madrasas and informal schools. There may be many such institutions that have land and buildings which can be put to this good use. It is his belief that once such schools are made accessible to the community, the impact will be such as has been seen in Sikar. Parents will begin to have the confidence to send their daughters to such proper schools, and these will serve as role-models that can encourage those already running small informal schools to convert themselves into regular schools.
Since independence, India has witnessed notable changes in our approach towards girls’ education. From being considered ‘not only a waste but often a definite disability’ in the first report of independent India’s University Education Commission, India has definitely travelled a long way. However, there is a long road that India still needs to traverse. Wahid Chowhan’s initiatives may be baby steps as compared to what India needs to achieve in girls’ education, but it is a revolution nonetheless. Perhaps, it is the small, silent revolutions that India so desperately needs today.