International Women’s Day: Meet the grannies going to school

BBC

  • 8 March 2017
  • From the section India

Every afternoon, the grandmothers of Phangane village wrap pink saris around themselves and slip abacuses and chalkboard into their backpacks.

They are going to school.

They live in Maharashtra state in India, a country where women are nearly a third less likely than men to be able to read and write.

Some of them have trouble with seeing the letters, and others feel chest pain when they talk. But every day except Thursday, these women gather to learn from a teacher less than half their age.

International Women’s Day 2017 is the one-year anniversary of the school, and photographer Satyaki Ghosh has been documenting the women’s journey to literacy.

Ansuya Deshmukh is 90 years old. The daughter of labourers, she was married off at the age of 10. “There was no money to buy slate and books, no money to buy clothes,” she says. “I used to go sometimes, mostly alternate days, but I used to fall sick so they stopped sending me to school.”

In the past year, she has learned enough to sign her name, say the alphabet and count to 21.

Yogendra Bangar, 41, is the founder of the school.

He started it after women in the village told him that if only they could read, they would be able to read about the life of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, a 17th century king whose life is celebrated in the village every year.

“It is said that women have to be respected on Women’s Day, so we thought that our grandmothers, who until now have not received respect, shall finally get the respect they deserve,” he says.

“The people of our grandmothers’ generation did not get any opportunity to go to school.”

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Mr Bangar raised money from a charity for the women’s saris and teaching materials, and found a classroom.

“If a woman is educated, the entire house becomes educated as she brings knowledge and light to the house,” says Mr Bangar.

Ramabhai Ganpat’s grandchildren take her hands in theirs and walk her to school.

“Feels good,” she says. “We love going to school. We take our bags and all of us grandmothers go together. We feel proud that we are able to learn so well.”

She laughs: “We have books now but we can’t really read because we can’t even see properly because of our age.

“When we die and go to God and he asks us ‘What have you done in your life?’ we will tell him that we didn’t do much but we went to school and at least learnt to sign our own name.

“I enjoy coming to school. It makes the day worthwhile.”

At the start of the school day, the women pray together, repeating: “I will never stop worshipping the goddess Saraswati” – the Hindu goddess of knowledge and wisdom.

Every day, they water the trees they have planted in the school grounds.

The school’s 30-year-old teacher Sheetal More, works for free. Her mother-in-law is one of her students.

Over the past year, one member of the group has passed away and three new women in the 60-90 year-old age group have moved to the village, so the class has grown from 28 to 30.

They are not yet fully literate and some complain that it is hard to remember what they have been taught. But they can sign their names instead of using a thumbprint – a big step.

On International Women’s Day 2017, the women will mark their one-year anniversary with celebrations.

Mrs More, the teacher, says: “It feels good to see that even women from the older generation who did not receive education in the past are educated now.

“And in all of India whoever is uneducated should be educated. There should be schools for all women in all the villages.”

 

You can see more of Satyaki Ghosh’s photography here.

Interviews by Aditi Mallya, BBC Delhi, and Satyaki Ghosh. Interpreting by Vipul Chavan.

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