Nashik, India – Aarti Ambore, 17, says she saw her childhood slipping away when her father suddenly died of a heart attack in September 2021.
Gajanan, her father, was a labourer and the only earning member of their family of five. He was only 47.
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Living in a slum in India’s western state of Maharashtra, Aarti’s mother, Vandana, 39, started working as a house help to make ends meet.
“Our financial situation got precarious after the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020,” Vandana told Al Jazeera. “It became difficult to keep our three kids in school. After my husband died, I was all by myself.”
Vandana earned somewhere between $75-80 a month – not enough to allow her to look after the family.
A few months after Gajanan’s death, she married her eldest daughter off. Ambore, who was 15 at the time and studying in ninth grade, was next. It didn’t matter that she was one of the brightest students in her class.
“I didn’t want to drop out of school,” said Ambore. “But my mother was helpless. We were struggling to even manage two meals a day. I had no hope.”
However, about two months before Gajanan’s death, Kunda Bachhav, 40, and Vaishali Bhamre, 45, teachers in a municipal school in Aarti’s city of Nashik, began to notice the effect of school closures during the coronavirus lockdown.
“Our school is up to eighth standard,” Bachhav told Al Jazeera. “We realised that several students that came from poor families dropped out of the education system after passing out of our school. Most of them were girls.”
The statewide data corroborates Bachhav’s anecdotal observations.
According to the Economic Survey of Maharashtra for 2022-23 (PDF), girls’ enrolment in secondary (ninth and 10th grades) and higher secondary (11th and 12th) studies dropped from 46.5 percent in the pre-pandemic year of 2019-20 to 31 percent in 2021-22.
The overall dropout rate of secondary school students in the state rose from 6.4 percent to 10.7 percent during the same period.
To mitigate the damage at the local level, Bachhav and Bhamre started the Karmadan Foundation in August 2021.
“We took responsibility for five girls between us to start things off,” Bachhav said.
“We then reached out to potential donors via social media and several noteworthy people came forward. In under two years, we managed to help 80 girls in Nashik either stay in school or get back to it. We are hoping to increase that number as more and more people come forward to help.”
Ambore was one of them.
The Karmadan Foundation paid $100 of her school fees for the 10th standard just when her mother considered ending her education prematurely. After she passed her board exams, the foundation helped her get admission to a Bachelor of Arts degree in a Nashik college.
“My college fees and expenses for books and stationery are all taken care of,” Ambore said. “I will make the most of this opportunity. It was difficult to see girls around me dropping out of school and getting married. I thought my fate was sealed.”
‘Girls have started to dream again’
Ambore currently works at a photo studio while pursuing a college degree. “I just want to ensure my mother quits being a house help,” she said.
Heramb Kulkarni, an educationist based in Maharashtra, said there has been significant progress in school enrolment at the primary level.
“But the problems arise for girl students after the eighth standard,” he added. “The dropouts post-COVID are particularly visible in impoverished districts. Girls after dropping out either go to work or are married off.”
Aarti Bhise, 17, had started working as a house help with her mother, Sagarbai, 40, after finishing the eighth grade.
“I was devastated when I had to drop out of school,” she said. “I would think of the classroom and my classmates while doing dishes in other people’s homes.”
Bhise’s father, Sunil, died in 2009. Sagarbai kept the family afloat by working as a house help. However, after the lockdown, Sagarbai’s income completely stopped and she couldn’t afford to keep Bhise in school.
“Luckily, Kunda ma’am got to know of our situation,” she said. “I filled a form that allows students to directly appear for the 10th standard board exams. The next year, I was enrolled in a college here for the Bachelor of Commerce degree.”
Bhise smiles ear to ear while talking about college. She loves every minute of it. Inspired by her teachers, she wants to emulate their work when she grows up.
“Just like my teachers helped me in a difficult time, I want to become a teacher and help marginalised students,” she said.
“Students take education for granted. But some of us realise its true value. And we want to impart the same values in to the next generation.”
Almost all the girls that Karmadan Foundation has helped want to give back to society. Someone wants to be a lawyer to fight for marginalised people, someone wants to be a police officer to ensure justice and someone wants to join the civil services.
Ambore is the most ambitious of them all. “I want to be a politician,” she said.
Her reasons are straightforward. “The roads are cleaned up before a politician’s visit,” Ambore said. “I want that kind of power so I can help more and more people that come from poor families.”
Bachhav, proudly listening to Ambore, doesn’t care too much about the end result though.
“Girls have started to dream again,” she said. “For now, that is all that matters.”