...Imagine some foreigner coming into your home and telling you that you have just been selected to board a rocket to Mars. Oh, by the way, it leaves next week. To an onlooker, that's probably what today looked like. --Lata, age 8, has no school plans, no personal records, and many family constraints --
After a tremendous effort to methodically and fairly select the most deserving, capable, and at-risk students, we have finalized our list of 15 children. It has 18 names. Uncertain about the bureaucracy surrounding the creation of interstate birth certificates and wary of family constraints, we have padded our list with three extra students. If, by some miracle, we are able to take all 18, we will still make it work.
--The chosen few--
You'll notice a heavy slant toward the females, 2:1 in fact. This is on purpose. First, females are almost always the primary childcare providers in India. If they are educated, their children will be too. Despite this obvious fact, the education of women is highly overlooked. The reason for this is just as obvious. Females, upon marriage, become absorbed into the structure of their husbands' families. They take a dowry with them and leave their blood relatives behind to fend for themselves. Why should a family invest in resources (ie. education) for their daughters when they cannot marry up in caste and such an investment will never come back to benefit the family? Although castes and dowries have been legally abolished, they still play irrefutable rolls in society here. This will continue to be the case for many generations to come.
--A sign from one of the hospitals I have been volunteering in--
Here, female children among the poor and lower castes are seen as burdens more than blessings. As I have noted before, prenatal determination of a fetus's gender is illegal throughout India to minimize purposeful abortions of females. Although the causes are still scientifically controversial and hotly debated, the gender ratio of births is still 917 girls for every 1000 boys.
Regardless of science or statistics, there is celebration when boys are born here. When girls are born, there is disappointment. In fact, if a mother has no sons and gives birth to a second daughter, the government opens an account with Rs 25,000 ($500) in it for the second daughter. This $500 can be withdrawn by the second daughter once she turns 18. Apparently, enough parents neglect their second daughters (often leading to malnutrition or death) to justify this incentive structure. As adults, women earn as little as half of what men earn for similar jobs in the factories surrounding our local slum.
An ulterior motive of our selection process, therefore, is to combat this blatant male favoritism. The sisters like this too. In the Carmel Convent School, the boy:girl ratio is about 1:1. However, in the public and low-end private schools usually attended by slum children, the ratio is more along the lines of 4:1 or 5:1.
This morning, after my speech at the school, Mitlesh and I set out to spread the news to accepted students and families. We also informed them of a meeting tomorrow afternoon in which we will lay out exactly what is going on, what this all means, how it will impact them, and the responsibilities that come with this incredible opportunity.
We walked far and wide throughout the slum on this exceptionally clear and beautiful day. Stray dogs sipped puddles, children hand-pumped water from wells, and soaking wet naked children scurried around after their bucket baths.
We informed parents at their homes and even at their jobs. We found Abishek's father, for instance, chemically treating automobile parts inside this poorly-ventilated building with multiple blazing furnaces and open pits of noxious acid. I can't imagine what it's like to work here in May when ambient temperatures reach 102 degrees Fahrenheit.
--A random worker where Abishek's father works--
Many of the selected families do not have any idea what these opportunities mean for them or their children. That is why we have planned a meeting. Tomorrow, they will begin to realize what a blessing they are being given and that we are in this together for the long haul.
On behalf of our volunteers, sisters, teachers, Mitlesh, my host family, and especially these awe-struck students and their families, thank you so much for your continued donations. As stated earlier, I will be properly acknowledging these wonderful gestures in later posts. Additionally, those providing semi-annual or annual sponsorships at the $125 and $250 levels respectively will be given the opportunity to Skype with the children they sponsor. I promise to make it a special experience for everyone involved!