World

India's 'school for grannies'

'School for grannies' in India challenges traditional attitudes and teaches the women how to read and write

PHANGANE:, INDIA They wear uniforms, carry satchels and recite the alphabet in class, but the students here are different - this is a "school for grannies".

Deprived of an education as children, the women - most of whom are widows and aged between 60 and 90 - are finally fulfilling a life-long dream to become literate through this unique initiative near Mumbai.

"I never went to school as a child. It feels great to come now and study with my friends. We have so much fun," 62-year-old Gulab Kedar said, beaming with pleasure.

She and the rest of the class wear matching pink saris.

The school, which marks its first anniversary on International Women's Day today, is challenging traditional attitudes common to many Indian villages and helping its women shed the stigma of illiteracy.

Every day, 29 students take the short walk from their homes in Phangane village, in the Thane district of Maharashtra, to Aajibaichi Shala, meaning "school for grannies" in the local Marathi language.

Grandchildren wave them off, or sometimes accompany them, not that this group needs to be cajoled into going.

They proudly carry matching satchels each containing a slate, a piece of chalk and a textbook.

From 2pm to 4pm, they sit cross-legged on the floor of the small classroom, which is made of bamboo, its roof thatched with hay.

Under the guidance of teacher Sheetal More, 30, they read simple text and carefully practise writing their names on their slates - two things they could not do 12 months ago. They also learn basic arithmetic.

STORY

The women, many wearing bangles and elaborate nose rings, all have a similar story to tell.

As youngsters they stayed at home or worked while their brothers got an education. They got married young and were then expected to raise children and look after the home.

"My siblings went to school but I wasn't given that opportunity," said 75-year-old Janabai Dajikedar.

"At the bank, I used to have to give my thumb print every time. There was a stigma attached and I felt shame. Now I am proud to sign my name," she added.

The facility is funded by a local charitable trust and is the brainchild of Mr Yogendra Bangar, a teacher at Phangane's primary school for the last three years.

He struck upon the idea early last year when some of the women complained that they could not take part in public readings during religious celebrations.

"We wanted to... help them. We thought that if we could give these grandmothers a fair chance at education and literacy then it would make them very happy," said Mr Bangar, 41.

"At their age, they are not going to go looking for a job at a corporation, but their joy at being able to provide a signature and read have increased their happiness manifold," he added.

He said the school - including its colourful uniform, which was intentionally chosen - is playing an important role in fostering respect for women. He also hopes it can be an example to other villages.

"Most of the grandmothers are widows and are meant to wear white to show mourning.

"We wanted to break this taboo and other older traditions to make every person feel they are equal and part of the community without any discrimination, so we chose a pink uniform," said Mr Bangar.

All 70 families in the village support the project and proudly dropped the grandmothers off on their first day of school.

"There was music and drums, lots of fanfare. It made us feel so special," recalled Madam Kantabai More, 70, who loves it when her grandchildren help her with her homework.

She said: "We huddle together and study, read, write, laugh and share stories. I'm content now." - AFP

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