Freedom and liberty are lofty goals that most democracies have set for themselves. I have come to believe that education is an important tool in the realisation of these goals, especially in developing countries. Man or woman cannot be truly free and the fruits of liberty will hang tantalisingly out of reach until there is freedom from want. The gainful employment that education offers can help in the attainment of that freedom. I am a student in the final year of law school and am interested in issues relating to gender and child welfare. As part of the Touro summer program in India we visited the Kasturba Girls Ashram in Shimla. The girls in the ashram are not orphans. They are children from economically backward families who have been recommended for admission by the local Panchayats (bodies of local self governance) so that they may pursue their school education. While it is wonderful that they have the opportunity of breaking free of the vicious cycle of poverty, the fact that such young girls be deprived of the chance of growing up under the care of their families heightened the sense of tragedy that struck me in that place. It is a tragic failure of the State and the system that a child must choose between the emotional comfort and security that the institution of family can provide and the promise of material security that education makes. But these girls are fighters. They have the determination to be happy regardless of the circumstances, the will to overcome the obstacles that poverty has deeply entrenched in their path and the sociological constraints that their gender imposes. They have dreams big and small. The desire to lead their families out of the hovels of deprivation burns silently but steadfast in their hearts. The sad reality is that many of their dreams might be trampled upon. But am certain the innocence, optimism and the values of courtesy and sharing that shone brightly in the girls when they interacted with us and cheerfully sang and danced for us without a care in the world, will shield them. They all appeared happy and well cared for. The credit for this must go to the commitment and empathy of the dedicated group of people instrumental in the running of the place. As we left the place, the girls waved to us energetically. Their smiles put me to shame, for the every individual of this nation must accept the responsibility for creating a selfish society in which ashrams and not homes are the refuge of children. But I also left with a sense of optimism. These girls are the ‘new lights for old lamps,’ in them lies the hope of redemption for all of us. Someday when the little girls of the ashram grow up to be role models for all children, especially the girl child who has long been treated as a burden in this patriarchy, the winds of change that have begun to blow would have become storms that steer India into true light and freedom.
By Rupavardhini B. R., a student who is studying with the Touro Law Summer Abroad Program in India. She is a law student at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata.