As we celebrate the win of Pusarla V. Sindhu’s prestigious medal in the Rio Olympics, we need to remember the hundreds of other girls in India whose dreams are quashed every day purely because of a lack in funds. Struggling to make ends meet, their families are often too poor to afford basic education, and even when education is an option, it’s the boy who gets sent off to school. There are a number of families who want to educate their daughters but are unable to do so due to financial setbacks coupled with the muddled beliefs of a patriarchal family structure and society. Working alongside the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme, a father-daughter duo has taken an off-beat approach to raise awareness about the necessity of educating girls.
Kaavya Rajesh and her father Rajesh Ramakrishnan decided to use photography as a medium to spread awareness and raise money for the education of young girls in India and Bangladesh. In March 2016, Kaavya watched a documentary film called Girl Rising which uses storytelling to inspire the education of girls worldwide. Speaking to us over the phone 15-year-old Kaavya comments, “Before watching the documentary, we had touched the topic of educating underprivileged girls very briefly in school. I had never heard of such drastic statistics. For example, 60 million girls around the world are unable to go to school due to lack of finances and family issues. We discussed the impact of this documentary in school and I felt inspired to help out.”
General Manager at the Italian firm Perfetti Van Melle handling operations in Dhaka, Rajesh tells us he picked up photography as a hobby about twelve years ago and over time it became a passion. “I was always looking out for ways to use photography as a means to give back to society,” said Rajesh. He moved to Delhi six years ago and got in touch with Goonj, a local NGO which highlights clothing as a basic but unaddressed human right and need and works to include it in India’s human development agenda. Working in collaboration with Goonj, Rajesh created desktop calendars which were sold to raise money for the NGOs cause and later moved back to Dhaka where he continued to raise money for social causes through the medium photography. After watching the documentary, Kaavya spoke to her father about the impact the documentary had on her and they decided to start a campaign to raise awareness about this issue.
“Deepak Jana is a driver who lives in the Tollygunge basti in Kolkata. He drives a white Ambassador. He has a daughter Nandini who is 6 years old and goes to Class 1 in a nearby school. Deepak would like to educate Nandini so that she can have a better future. Nothing is more important to him than Nandini’s mischievous smile.”
Together they started a photography project called My Daughter Is Precious - the modus operandi is to visit households in the lower socioeconomic areas of cities such as Chennai, Kolkata and Dhaka, and speak to parents about the need to educate their daughters. They photograph fathers with their daughters to spread the message that all daughters need to be cherished and loved. When asked if she felt intimidated walking through these areas Kaavya says, “I didn’t feel scared at all. It was just a different environment from what I’m used to. It was an eye opening experience to witness slums and skyscrapers in such proximity. Initially I was unsure about how people would react but once I explained why I was there they seemed eager to understand what I was trying to achieve.”
Kaavya is also passionate about photography and chanced upon the idea to use Polaroid photographs for this campaign. A nearly obsolete form of photography, Kaavya and Rajesh realised that in areas of the city where people couldn’t even afford family photographs, these pictures would serve as a memento of the bond between father and daughter.
The idea for the campaign was conceptualised in February 2014; a Facebook page was created in April to give people more personal insight and increase the reach of the campaign. “We visited Kolkata five months ago and found the same issues plaguing slums in the region so we decided to begin shooting in India as well. Looking for a more tangible impact, we began searching for NGOs which supported the education of girl children in India. This is how we got in touch with Project Nanhi Kali,” said Rajesh. In a three-way tie-up with Nanhi Kali, a project working at the grassroots level to ensure the education of underprivileged girls in India, and the crowd funding platform Bitgiving, Kaavya and Rajesh set up a crowdfunding campaign to help finance the education of girls in poor households – through this campaign they are looking to raise funds for at least 100 girls. The money raised will be given to Project Nanhi Kali who will pay school fees and procure books and uniforms for the girls.
“Twelve year old Meenadevi and her father Ravichandran. At first neither of them smiled for a picture as the act of posing was very alien for them. However, after receiving the Polaroid a small smile crept onto Meenadevii’s face. ‘I will always support Meenadevi and do my best to help her,’ said her father.”
In the course of this campaign Kaavya and Rajesh have spoken with girls of various ages and some stories often stand out above the others. We asked Kaavya if there was any story that affected her personally, to which she responded, “We were in Chennai and met Sharmila, a 16-year-old girl. She was a very good student and studied till class 11. To pay for her school fees and other expenses her parents took loans but the rates of interest were so high that her parents could no longer afford her education and she had to drop out of school. She now works as an assistant in a dental clinic. Her father is an auto-rickshaw driver but does not take much interest in family matters so the burden falls on her mother. I was distressed by the fact that she reached class 11 but couldn’t study further due to lack of money.” It’s stories like that of Sharmila that echoed across India, and indeed, the world.
When asked for his take on where Indian society could be lacking in addressing this issue Rajesh comments, “Society is lacking in public sensibility. The Government can act as an enabler but the problem is so big that we need more private-public partnerships. Involvement of corporate organisations would make things a lot faster.” “We want people to rise to the challenge and to tackle this issue individually. Perhaps I’ll become a journalist one day and address the issue globally. I don’t know yet, I’m only 15,” Kaavya added jokingly.
So far, the crowd funding campaign has generated sufficient funds to sponsor the education of more than 50 girls for a year. We can only hope that more girls from financially poor households benefit from this campaign, and as they say, when you educate your children, you’re educating your children’s children.