Sharjah expat spreads women’s literacy in Indian villages

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By Deepa Narwani | 26 January 2018

There is an African proverb that goes: “If you educate a man, you simply educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a whole nation.”

For Sharjah-based expat Shazia Kidwai, this is close to her heart and she is on a mission to impart education to women in rural India. Kidwai has fulfilled her vision through ‘Appi (elder sister) Ka Centre’, an institute she founded in 2010 that teaches school dropouts how to write, read and do math calculations.

Kidwai belongs to the Barabanki district in Uttar Pradesh, and hails from the Badagaon and Bhayara villages. A financial consultant, she has been in the UAE for over 20 years.

What inspired her to start the centre? “An association called the American Federation of Muslims of Indian origin (AFMI) has a number of educational programmes dedicated to India and wanted to start a chapter in Dubai. Due to some reasons, it didn’t work out but while trying to put it together, I was in touch with Dr AS Nakadar, AFMI’s founder.

Dr Nakadar is involved in the construction of schools and colleges in India and awards a gold and silver medal every year to Muslim toppers in every state in the country. “That was thought provoking for me, and I asked him besides the toppers, what are we doing to support the kids who are not able to study?” said Kidwai.

While working on the project, she also realised that India’s average literacy rate was 74 per cent, but her home state of Uttar Pradesh ranks among the least literate. “I found it is the Indian Muslim women in the north of India who are mostly making up these low numbers. Since I hail from here, I took it up as a challenge. If not me, who else would do it?”

Soon, on her visits to India, Kidwai started calling the parents of dropout students and looked at what factors contributing to illiteracy. One of the main reasons for dropping out of school was having to help with the household work, thus cutting into the girls’ regular classes, and financial reasons, among other factors.

During the process, she met a number of 15-year-old girls who had received basic education, and that is where the concept of Appi Ka Centre took off from.

“I thought of starting an informal centre where one educated girl teaches six illiterate girls. I identified the teachers and started this homeschool concept, where the students go to the teacher’s house and their basic education needs are met. Last year, 50 girls from the centre sat for exams, passed and were certified as literates by the state government,” she says proudly.

Currently, there are 37 students and six teachers enrolled at the centre, which is self-funded by Kidwai. Thanks to technology, she is in touch with these girls on a daily basis and they send her pictures and WhatsApp voicenotes informing her of their progress.

She noted: “When I visit the centre, I host talks and get feedback from parents. They feel proud that the girls can now read the road directions and bus routes, what medicine they are consuming, and I remember one parent quipped, ‘at least now we know if we are eating medicine for the kidney and not rat poison!'”

“Of course, some girls were very happy that they can now read all the latest gossip about Bollywood actors Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif!” laughed Kidwai.

When asked about future plans, Kidwai shared: “I want to start a vocational centre where these girls can further be taught courses on physiotherapy, nursing, beautician training or fashion designing, so that they can become self-sufficient going forward.”

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