STEM in the Slums: Giving India’s Girls the Skills to Rise Up

When girls reach their teen years in parts of India, they often lose the opportunities afforded to males. But some young women are writing their own futures, using what they learn from innovative education and leadership initiatives in India’s poorest communities.

Written by Sonia Narang and Priyanka Kotamraju Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
In parts of India, adolescent girls growing up in the slums have few opportunities to escape poverty. But through programs that teach science and engineering, as well as feminism and public speaking, some girls are learning how to fulfill their potential. AP/Saurabh Das

NEW DELHI – Inside an innovation lab in New Delhi, India, a group of girls experiment with hands-on science and engineering projects. They aren’t from an exclusive school or the daughters of parents who are doctors and engineers. These girls are from some of the most impoverished slums in India’s capital, and they’re learning that it’s not just boys who can excel in the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and math.

Here, “you will find 10- to 15-year-olds tinkering with instruments, equipment, learning to make a motor or a dynamo,” says Gayatri Buragohain, executive director of the nonprofit group Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT).

Buragohain, an electronics engineer by training, has long advocated for young women to gain exposure to fields often shut off to half the population, especially girls from underprivileged backgrounds. As daughters of migrant workers and domestic help, these girls often have little chance to rise out of poverty, let alone use a computer or get online.

“Every girl wants to learn to operate a computer,” says Buragohain. “So, we started off by visiting [slums] and telling parents and girls that we offer free computer classes. Generally, parents would push their sons, but we insisted that these classes were for girls only.”

These kinds of initiatives are opening up paths for adolescent girls in India, a country where women often have fewer opportunities than men, or none at all. Despite the nation’s staggering economic growth, major cultural issues continue to prevent girls from accessing education and vocational training. Organizations like the philanthropic foundation EMpower, which funds FAT, have made girls’ education in India a priority by supporting projects that try to break through the barriers.

“We teach girls to shed their fear of technology and introduce the ideas of feminism,” says Buragohain. FAT’s program holds up early feminists like 19th-century mathematician Ada Lovelace as heroes. “We ask them, who do they think invented the computer or programming? Not just Charles Babbage – it was a woman who invented programming,” she says. “The general response is, ‘Really? A woman did all that?’”

Even with the benefits of learning real-world skills soaked in feminist inspiration, FAT trainers find it difficult to keep girls coming to the classes because of their roles and responsibilities at home. “Early marriage is a huge problem, what the girl must do with her life is usually already mapped out, designed for her,” Buragohain says.

So her team spends time talking to families and convincing parents that programs like FAT’s can change their daughters’ lives. The group has also started providing small stipends and travel allowances to make it easier for girls to stay in the program.

“All of a sudden, at a very young age, their world of opportunity opens up to them in a way that it never would have before,” says Nisha Dhawan, EMpower’s senior program officer for India. “They’re looking at science, technology, engineering and math, and seeing it as something that they can do.”

Dhawan says that despite India’s massive economic growth in recent years, long-held cultural traditions still affect many girls and women, especially in lower-income communities. “These issues take generations to change,” Dhawan says, adding that, in India, it’s adolescent girls who are the most vulnerable, since their education is at stake.

In certain communities, when a girl enters her teen years, “she’s pushed into the private realm,” Dhawan says. “She’s not allowed to go outside in the way that she would before,” she continues. “Her honor and her chastity, or perceived chastity, is tied so closely with her family’s honor and her community’s honor.”

In India, the percentage of girls in school drops off as girls get older, in many cases because they can’t leave their homes. “Just being pulled out of school eliminates a lot of your chances at life,” Dhawan says.

In Mumbai, the Vacha Trust uses EMpower funding to teach girls leadership skills and help them overcome the challenges of living in the city’s slums. One of the group’s young leaders, Sabah Siddiqui, 17, lives in a notorious neighborhood. “Auto [rickshaw] drivers are scared to come here,” Siddiqui says. She says a few years ago, she and her friends couldn’t even go to the communal toilet without being harassed by groups of boys hanging around outside. “Boys would crowd us, call us names, talk about our clothes and bodies,” she says.

The first girl in her family to get an education – and with dreams of growing up to be a future financial wizard – Siddiqui joined the Adolescent Girls Learning Community when she was in sixth grade. Run by the Vacha Trust, the initiative offers training in leadership and life skills, with lessons on feminism and public speaking.

Siddiqui says the program taught her and the other girls in the group how to stand up for themselves, and they recently showcased their newfound confidence for the local community.

“We took photos of those boys, put them up in an exhibition,” she says. “We did a street play and enacted the scenes outside a common toilet. We [held] a rally telling people how unsafe we felt in our own neighborhoods. It changed a few things. Fewer and fewer boys hang around the toilets, and police [officers] are more responsive.”

With the support of the Vacha Trust (“Vacha” means “to speak” in Marathi) the girls are claiming small but significant victories in their fight for equal treatment. One group of girls got street lighting installed on the route from their slum to the train station, so they could walk safely at night. Another group reserved girls-only times to play football in a public space usually dominated by boys. “We see shy, fearful girls turn into strong, confident, articulate women,” says the Vacha Trust’s executive director, Medhavinee Namjoshi.

But to fully empower girls and young women, EMpower’s Dhawan says, it’s important to get boys and young men on board. So EMpower also partners with co-ed organizations like Lend-a-Hand India, which teaches job and life skills to unemployed young people. Boys can learn home economics side-by-side with girls training in carpentry and electrical work.

“It’s really ‘gender bending’ in a way,” says Dhawan. “Putting boys and girls in the same room and having open and honest dialogue means that they’re recognizing each other as humans.”

 

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