Educating children at a young age allows them to develop skills that are necessary for them to contribute to society. However, children in rural communities are often needed to work and earn money. Also, discrimination often keeps young girls at home where they help their mothers care for their younger siblings. This keeps them from attending school and obtaining a proper education. An essential part of this education begins at the age of two when children’s minds are very impressionable. However, a child’s pre-school education is neglected because parents are busy trying to earn enough money. As a result, children often accompany their mothers while they work, or they are looked after by neighbors or older relatives. They miss out on a Balwadi (Pre-School) education which teaches children basic skills, allows them to interact with other children, and stimulates their minds.
Education is a matter of empowerment. However before empowering children, parents must be empowered first and made aware of the necessity and advantages of an education. For the village of Slate Godam, a poor and underdeveloped village, the first step would be the empowerment of women through Mahila Mandals (Village Women’s Groups). With the formation of such a group, women could begin thinking about the development of their village and their children.
It was not until four or five women from Slate Godam visited a neighboring village that they realized the benefits of this group. They saw the Mahila Mandal discussing issues in their community that they too wanted to bring up. They also saw the Mahila Mandal members form small Self Help Groups (SHG) and take loans to buy animals and to construct houses. These SHG were created to further the women’s own economic development and financial situation. These women who were never able step out of their houses were now managing their own households and actively participating in their community. The women of Slate Godam wanted to start their own Mahila Mandal so they informally gathered once a month and collected 5 rupees each (equivalent to about 9 US cents). Soon more than a hundred women started attending forming about nine SHG. After becoming affiliated with CORD, Urmila, a CORD worker, began to regularly attend their meetings.
After coming to the village for some time Urmila noticed that the small children were wandering here and there. Many of the children would play in the mud of the fields that their parents worked on. Some of the children would talk back to their parents. Education was not valued among the villagers as reflected by the lack of a nursery school and a poor primary school with only one teacher. Urmila understood the importance of an education at this age and she brought up the issue of the children’s education at a Mahila Mandal meeting. By bringing awareness to the women, she lit a fire in their minds, but it was up to the women to come up with a solution. After one meeting, the women decided that the best option for their little ones would be to start a Balwadi. The women were so enthusiastic to educate their children and keep them busy during the day. Although the enthusiasm was there, the women told Urmila that they lacked the money to hire and train a teacher. Urmila assured them that this was no problem because a teacher from an outside village was not necessary. All the women needed to do was to elect someone from their own village to receive training at CORD. The women of the village elected Achri Devi, a dedicated member of the Mahila Mandal, to be trained as a Bal-Sevika (teacher). An intensive 8 day training took place at CORD where Achri Devi was taught basic teaching skills and how to develop the minds of these small children. She was also instructed on health issues relating to children such as how to check for anemia and how to treat diarrhea, fevers, and headaches. Although she only completed schooling up to the sixth standard, she was enthusiastic to learn. After the training, Achri Devi brought back the new knowledge she gained to her village and a Balwadi was started in 1993.
Starting the Balwadi was not as easy as the villagers thought it would be. It required materials and effort, both of which the villagers were lacking. In the beginning, Achri Devi would have to teach the children without basic materials like books or slates. Without these necessary supplies, Achri Devi could not give her students the best possible early education that they deserved. There were also times when the children would have nothing to eat so the Mahila Mandal would provide the children with food. If there was not enough food for them, Achri Devi would bring food from her own home. In time, Achri Devi started getting material support from CORD like stationary and nutritious food. Achri Devi’s connection to CORD has become very strong. She continues to get material and financial help from CORD to support her endeavor. She also attends monthly follow-ups and receives additional training from time to time at CORD.
However, at times the villagers did not show their complete support for the program. For eight years, Achri Devi would have to go from home to home picking up the children. Since there was no place for these children to learn, she would take them to her own house which had become a makeshift classroom. This would be on top of the other responsibilities like developing a lesson plan and providing snacks for the children. But Achri Devi was persistent and never complained. She knew that once the villagers realized the importance of this kind of education for their little ones, they would take some responsibility for the program. Soon enough, the parents started dropping their children off at the Balwadi and taking ownership of their children’s education.
This new interest in education motivated the villagers to ask for funding from the government to build a classroom for the Balwadi students which could also be used as a meeting place for the Mahila Mandal. In due time, a classroom was constructed and the excited Balwadi children moved from Achri Devi’s home to the brand new classroom.
As a result of the new emphasis that the parents and villagers placed on their children’s education, marriages done at a young age were stopped. Urmila also showed the villagers how to obtain a birth certificate from the Chief Medical Officer so that the children of the village could attend school. Today, the Balwadi of Slate Godam is a thriving program. The children participate in Balwadi competitions and programs which are attended by all the villagers. Balwadi is also attended by handicapped children who otherwise may not have had a chance for an education in a rural village. The Balwadi program helps to ensure that the welfare of the children is a priority of the village. The parents of the children are so pleased that their children are learning something and headed on the right path. The Balwadi program has given the children of Slate Godam a bright and promising future.