CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WICS/WCCU) — Twenty-seven percent of girls in India are married before their 18th birthday.
That’s according to the organization Girls Not Brides. That statistic is especially true for girls who are poor and uneducated. But, education isn’t always a priority for girls in India, Ananya Tiwari noticed.
“It pains you that you are having a life of privilege and there are many in the world who don’t enjoy very simple privileges like choosing where to study or choosing whether to study or not, choosing who to marry or choosing not to marry,” said Tiwari.
The University of Illinois student knows her life could have been a lot different.
“The kind of education we got was very different from the kind of education a lot of the children around us got,” she said. “It had nothing to do with merit. It had everything to do with the class they were coming from.”
Tiwari is from India, but now lives in the Champaign-Urbana area.
India has a caste system. It divides people into groups. One can usually only socialize and marry members of their own caste. People are also awarded certain opportunities based on their caste. Tiwari wants to make sure students across all castes get an equal education.
“How do we create a system or special schools that can help educate girls who are almost always left behind and bring them to the forefront of education?”
Last year, Tiwari set out to answer that question. She helped come up with a non-profit: the Swataleem Foundation.
“It’s actually a mixture of two words,” Tiwari said. “’Swa’ comes from Sanskrit, meaning ‘owning on your own’ and ‘Taleem’ is an Arabic word that means ‘education.' So ‘Swataleem’ means ‘owning your education.’”
Tiwari’s co-founder works in India. While Tiwari works in Champaign-Urbana, she travels to India several times a year.
Together, the pair works with schools to select an educational problem they are facing. Then, they train those teachers to fix the problems. So far, the Swataleem Foundation has worked with 900 girls, ages 12 to 17-years-old.
“Understanding how to use skills like problem-solving, how to use skills like goal setting, how to use skills like emotional awareness and self-regulation,” Tiwari said. “In the long-term prospect, if these girls are able to complete their education, their probability to enter the workforce would be much higher.”
Swataleem hopes to reach 2,000 girls by July 2020 and 5,000 by 2021. The foundation has an agreement with the Indian government, which Tiwari said isn’t easy to get.
“To get a memorandum of understanding can be hard and it takes multiple years,” she said. “We were definitely very surprised when we were six months into our existence when we got it. That shows that we are doing something good, A and B, this kind of work is required.”
Tiwari feels she’s already seen a difference in the girls.
“I’ve met a girl who, if you ask them their names, they would just turn around and they would not be able to tell me their names,” said Tiwari. “After the three months of intervention, they were organizing public platforms to discuss the problems that they have. The teachers told us, ‘I’ve never seen that girl speak before. She’s coming up and speaking in public' and I think that was such a surprise.”
Tiwari uses this as a constant reminder to keep pushing.
“I’m away from home,” she said. “I don’t have my family here and I'm a doctoral student, so things can get pretty hard for us, but I think this really keeps me going because it's almost like I’m working for someone else who needs it more than me.”
Recently, Tiwari was awarded the International Achievement Award by the University of Illinois. It recognizes her work that the school said is making a global impact.
The Swataleem Foundation is a non-profit that uses grants and seed money as well as money from the Indian government and donations. To learn more about the foundation or to donate, click here.