Punit Asthana, founder and president of the Agra-based Indian Dreams Foundation, believes he can solve India’s illiteracy crisis within one generation, simply by giving more adolescent girls access to education.
“Educating girls is the most powerful and effective way to address global poverty,” Asthana told India-West. “Educated women are more likely to educate their own children – ending the cycle of illiteracy in one generation,” he asserted.
IDF – founded in 2004 by Asthana and partially funded by Indian Americans who donate to the program through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation – has developed an initiative, “Honhar Ladki” (Promising Girl), which is focused specifically on adolescent girls belonging to under-privileged communities, who have dropped out of school because of social and economic problems.
The Honhar Ladki program works initially with parents to make them understand the value of educating their girl children, and then sponsors girls for education in formal schools. The initiative provides mentoring, as well as financial support and scholarships.
“The program supports girls so that they not only graduate, but also develop the skills they need to negotiate key life decisions,” said Asthana, noting that IDF constantly works with parents to ensure their daughters stay in school, rather than getting married off at an early age. Honhar Ladki aims to support the education of 2,000 low-income adolescent girls by 2018.
India is home to one-third of the world’s illiterate female population: 187 million women in the country cannot read or write, according to The Globalist. Only 51 percent of Indian women have basic literacy skills, compared to 74 percent of Indian men.
IDF is currently working with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration to support the premier’s ambitious initiative, “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” – Save the Girl Child, Educate the Girl Child. The Modi program aims to balance child sex ratios through initiatives – primarily education – which help parents recognize the value of their daughters.
In 2011, India had 918 girls for every 1,000 boys, a dramatic decrease from 2001, with 927 girls for every 1,000.
“The declining child sex ratio is a major indicator of women’s disempowerment, as it begins before birth — manifested in gender biased sex selection and elimination — and continues in various forms of discrimination towards the girl child after birth in fulfilling her health, nutrition and educational needs,” stated Asthana. He noted a recent study which concluded that Indian parents are more likely to send their sons to private schools, and their daughters to government schools, which are largely under-resourced and understaffed.
Households with lower incomes tend not to send their adolescent girls to school, preferring them to stay home to perform household and agricultural chores, Asthana told India-West. In his home town, Agra, girls are sent out to the fields for the entire months of February and March, during the potato harvests, he said.
IDF has been awarded “special consultative status” by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. The organization thus serves as consultants to the UN on many of its programs, especially those related to the Millennium Development Goals, eight international goals aimed at eradicating poverty in the developing world.
Asthana told India-West he was inspired at an early age by his mother. His father passed away when he was only 10, leaving only his mother to care and support her three children.
“I have seen many tough conditions after the sudden death of my father; I came to know the real meaning of poverty and deprivation,” said the social entrepreneur. The extended family suggested that the young children should work, but Asthana said his mother stood up for her children and stated that all would complete their education.
Even as a good student, Asthana said he could not think of continuing on to college to gain an education for a mainstream career. Initially after graduating, he began a part-time job and earned diplomas in science and mass communication through a distant-learning program. He is now enrolled in the executive post-graduate program in Development Management at the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbai.
After graduating from high school, Asthana said he was determined to improve the lives of other low-income children like himself, and began visiting Agra’s urban slums with his friends. He began to learn the basic problems of slum dwellers: lack of access to clean water, massive illiteracy and un-hygienic conditions leading to diseases.
“I was shocked to see the worst living conditions and education status of the children,” he stated. “Thousands of children were not admitted in schools, most of them had dropped their studies due to the economic problems of their family. They were wandering on the streets,” Asthana said, noting that many were child laborers. Girls were the victims of malnutrition and early marriages, he noted.
IDF is currently focused in urban and rural Agra, but hopes to expand its program to reach low-income adolescent girls in other remote regions. The organization has received support from Google Grants and Give to India, and is accredited by India Guide Star, which rates NGOs in India for their efficacy in utilizing donor money.