Nexus of Good: Breaking barriers

By enhancing awareness and self-efficacy through life-skills education, Room to Read has been strengthening girls’ ability to identify and address gender-based constraints

Nexus of Good: Breaking barriers

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 envisions the 21st-century learner to be confident, creative problem solver, inquiry-driven, capable of creating aspirational economic pathways and, above all, making informed decisions. In this way, it outlines the role of school as a change and capacitating agent that will nurture the future citizens as empowered individuals. While laying this aim, the NEP also recognises the challenges faced by socially disadvantaged groups; girls being one such group. It is also known that girls from other disadvantaged groups face double disadvantage. So, unless it is ensured that girls across the spectrum are being empowered through school education, we will not be able to reach the goal we have set for ourselves.

The attainment of gender equality in educational spaces, until now, has been marked by enrolment, retention, and pass rates. However, it is time to reflect on whether the process of school education is helping girls break gender-based barriers, and creating an empowering education for them. Now that we have a solid foundation of gains in terms of girls' enrolment in schools, we must examine whether schools are able to ensure a free atmosphere of being and learning for girls or if they are reproducing the same inequalities that girls struggle with at their homes and communities. If school education is to be empowering and liberating for marginalised girls, it must go beyond the domestication of girls, stereotypes, and biases that arise from gender-based socialisation.

Room to Read India adopts a pathway of strengthening girls' agency to identify and address gender-based barriers in their life journey and help them navigate key life decisions. They do this by assisting girls in enhancing their self-awareness, social awareness, and self-efficacy through life skills education training, mentoring, and engagement with their communities and families. Room to Read directly contributes to the SDG 5.

The organisation has been working with adolescent girls since 2003. Focusing on each individual girl, Room to Read's direct intervention provides structured life skill inputs to girls from grades 6 to 12. With this model, the organisation has impacted 29,715 girls to date and made a substantial difference in their lives.

The central pillar of this intervention is a Social Mobiliser (SM) – a caring and wise adult who receives extensive training on gender-responsive life skills delivery, and serves as the face of the program on the ground. The SM provides 77 hours of life skills input to girls through a structured, graded, and age-appropriate curriculum. Additionally, she provides 44 hours of group mentoring, including individual mentoring when necessary. She also offers 15 hours of life skills curriculum to parents and caregivers of the girls, 6 hours of focused discussions with school authorities, and 4 hours of discussion time with local governance-level committees. This dedicated input to girls, while strengthening the enabling environment, assists them to exercise their agency at school as well as at household and community levels. It also equips girls to critically reflect on the choices they have, and, importantly, to identify gender-biased behaviours and outlook that they have imbibed being a part of society. In this process, they strengthen their self-awareness, social-awareness, self-efficacy, and voice. Moreover, they are able to envision a life in which education and economic empowerment hold an important place.

Measuring gains in life skills and agency is difficult. In 2016, Room to Read undertook a Randomised Control Trial (RCT) to holistically understand the impact of its programme. The RCT was conducted over a two-year period (2016-2018) in partnership with Abdul Jameel Latif Poverty Lab (JPAL), South Asia, and the United States Department of Labor (USDOL). The RCT concluded that Room to Read’s intervention improved school progression and girls’ expression of life skills. Another interesting conclusion was that with the support of a mentor and life skills curriculum, girls could stay in school for longer and cultivate leadership skills. The programme made a measurable difference in creative problem-solving, decision-making, relationship building and expressing agency over one’s life.

Thereafter, in 2018, Room to Read scaled up their evidence-based programme, through a public-private partnership, to bring life skills education to 67,149 adolescent girls studying in the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas (KGBVs) of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Telangana. Room to Read teams worked closely with the respective governments to build systemic capacities through training and information sessions, standardising various aspects of the model, contextualising life skills sessions within government delivery systems, and making the process of implementation cost-effective. This intensive yet ‘at scale’ work with the residential institutions generated a practical and engaging model for students and educators. The organisation now is working to help the state governments sustain the gains they have made, especially in terms of system readiness and system capacity.

The government collaboration model also inspired district-level governments to roll out life skills education programmes in their own districts, for instance, in Baran, Rajasthan, with over 3,500 Sahariya girl students and their 8,000 other peers from 6 to 12, and in Gadwal, Telangana, with grade 6-8 girl students of all schools in the district. Room to Read is providing technical assistance to the district teams to create system capacity for content creation and facilitation, taking the agency building and gender equality efforts deeper and further. What’s been unique in this intervention is the organisation’s emphasis in making the process gender-aware and, ultimately, gender transformational.

Giving life skills education a gender focus, Room to Read is also creating momentum around gender responsive teaching – especially of life skills. Gender responsive teaching recognises and responds to the unique learning needs of students by actively addressing the discrimination or bias they face, based on their gender, that prevents them from fully participating in or benefitting from their education. Gender responsive teacher training capacitates teachers to be more gender aware and equips them with the perspective to understand and respond to gender dynamics in the school.

Room to Read’s circle of influence and support is creating a nexus which is deeply rooted and growing organically, enhancing gender equality through gender-focussed life skills education and gender-responsive teaching. The model put in place under the inspired leadership of Sourav Banerjee and Geetha Murali is scalable and replicable through public-private partnership in the true spirit of Nexus of Good.

Views expressed are personal

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