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Girls’ School Breaks Cycle of Poverty, 10 Rupees at a Time

By Karen Calabria
Special Correspondent

Washington — Virender Singh left his rural Indian village of Anupshahar for the United States a half-century ago, when he was 23 years old, but the fate of those he left behind was never far from his mind.

Singh’s mind often fixed upon concerns he had about the villagers and others in India. Chief among his concerns was the 42 percent of India’s population living below the poverty line. Singh knew that women bore a disproportionate share of the ills that accompany poverty: human trafficking, early marriage and domestic violence.

A few years ago, the dual American/Indian citizen felt compelled to act. Immediately following his retirement in 2000 as vice president of chemicals firm DuPont South Asia Limited, Singh, 70, cashed in all his savings, sold his home in Virginia and returned to Anupshahar, 113 kilometers miles east of New Delhi, to break ground on the Pardada Pardadi Educational Society (PPES). The words “Pardada Pardadi” form a Hindi term that means “great grandparents.” Singh named his new endeavor thus to evoke the central role family plays in education in India.

The new school would cater strictly to girls. “If you want to solve the problem, you’ve got to solve the root cause,” Singh said. By educating girls, he said, “we can enlighten future mothers, and they in turn will create an enlightened family, which will create an enlightened village, then nation.”

This is not a revolutionary idea. Experts on development long have embraced this ideology. Recently, in a speech celebrating World Literacy Day in India, Nicholas Burnett, an education official at UNESCO, avowed: “No social progress can happen without educating women.”

But PPES, a free academic and vocational institute for girls, was a risky venture. In a country where United Nations statistics show only 55 percent of women over the age of 15 are literate, changing perceptions about the need to educate girls was an uphill battle.

Taruna Sharma, 23, a social science teacher at the school, put it this way: “Girls are considered property in India. When they marry, they are going to leave their family, so [the prevailing attitude is] ‘why spend time, energy and resources on them?’”

During its first year of operation, in 2000, the institute enrolled 45 students, and only 13 of them stayed to the end of the year, despite an unusual incentive that pays girls to attend. For each day of school a girl attends, 10 rupees (84 cents) are deposited in her account. By graduation, a student will have earned 30,000 rupees ($630). The money is strictly for the student, not her family. She gains access to her account upon her marriage, provided she marries after age 18, or on her 21st birthday, whichever occurs first.

The institute also provides books, uniforms, transportation to and from school, and three meals a day in a country where child malnutrition is rampant.

With an annual operating budget of nearly $500,000, the institute relies on a mix of corporate and private donors for funding. Among the contributors are Singh’s former employer, DuPont; the Ford Foundation; and the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

Today, nine years after the school doors opened, it is struggling to find space for all its applicants. Nearly 1,000 students enrolled for the 2009-10 academic year, and Singh plans to add 250 more next year. The dropout rate has dwindled to single digits.

“Those first students became our best ambassadors. They started talking to other girls about what they were learning here,” school principal Shajan Jose said.

In addition to standard academic courses, the school offers vocational training in textiles. Students learn hand and machine embroidery, beadwork and appliqué. Their handcrafts are sold through the school’s Web site, and the profits are reinvested in the school.

The benefits of education aren’t always tangible, said Lindsay Johnson, 23, a Nashville, Tennessee, native volunteering at the school as an English teacher. “Besides basic education and skills, school also provides these girls with a lot more confidence. Seeing that there are different opportunities available to all kinds of people is just as important as their education.”

Other changes are apparent to Johnson: Students show improvements in hygiene, in cleanliness, and in using correct grammar and speaking in complete sentences. “People are taking note and slowly starting to adjust their attitudes,” Sharma said.

Among those benefiting from this gradual shift in attitudes is 10th grader Krishna Chaudhri. She is the first girl in her family to be educated and one of only five girls from her village of 3,000 to attend school at all.

After her parents were killed in a property dispute, Chaudhri and her brother were sent to their grandparents, who struggled to support them. “If I weren’t here at Pardada Pardadi, I would be collecting firewood or grass fodder for my animals. I’d be married off to a much older man and have several children,” said Chaudhri, 17, now first in her class. “If it wasn’t for school, life would be very miserable.”

“Now that I’m educated, I will be self-reliant and independent, financially and socially. I’ll be in a position to help others,” she said.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.  Web site:

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