Where Religion and Secularism Meet: An All Girls School in Ahmedabad

 

https://youtu.be/ivXinHdnY5Q

Video by Roda Osman

 

Written by Ana Singh

AHMEDABAD – On most days, Dr. Nita Shah feels like she is the mother of 400 girls. She helps them with their homework, with making their beds and comforts them when they are homesick. In fact, many of the girls at her school, SV Randesan, call her “Ma.”

“She is naturally like that,” said her assistant principal, Bharat Mavadia.

And if she is the mother, Mavadia is the father figure on campus. “I just picked up the role that was then required,” he said. “I needed to be the disciplinarian guy.”

SV Randesan, a residential boarding school in Ahmedabad for girls in fifth through twelfth grades has nearly doubled in size since it first opened its doors two years ago. With 370 current students, there is no plan to stop growing. Instead, over the next few years the school hopes to have 1,000 students.

“There was a demand from parents for a school which could accommodate under-privileged girls,” said Shah. “They live at their remote locations villages where good educational systems are not there.” The majority of the students receive some form of financial assistance and many of the girls from poor rural areas are given access to a free education.

Financial aid for the school is made possible through the Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism. But despite the religious affiliation, the school prides itself on providing a traditional secular education to its students. The classrooms are enhanced by the state of the art facility and fully equipped with the latest technologies. “Having technology helps get our students ahead,” said Mavadia.

Technology is one of the ways in which SV Randesan is trying to empower its students from underprivileged backgrounds. Literacy, especially among girls and women, is woefully low in India. The overall literacy rate for women in India is 39 percent in comparison to a 64 percent literacy rate for men. As a result there are 200 million illiterate women in India.  Educational disparities for women become even more exaggerated in rural areas where only 31 percent of all women are literate. In urban areas the literacy rate among women is drastically higher at 64 percent.

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A few of the girls inside their dormitories

Ana Singh

Besides poor job prospects, low illiteracy rates have other societal implications for Indian women. Thirty-eight percent of illiterate married women were married below the age of 18 in comparison to the 23 percent of literate women who got married below the legal age according to the most recent census data. One of the intentions of both the school is to give girls and young women access to education in the hopes that they can achieve financial success without depending on an underage marriage for security.

In addition to providing a quality education for young girls, SV Randesan also emphasizes values such as honesty, obedience and good behavior, both in and outside of the classroom. Although all school lessons are secular, these values connect back to the teachings of the Swaminarayan faith. “From religion there this value system which will make individual a better citizen,” said Shah.

The obedience and good citizenship of the girls is especially apparent inside the dormitories. In every room, all the beds are perfectly made and not a single article of clothing lingers on the floor. Across from the dormitories, in the aarti room, a large chart containing a daily checklist of good behavior hangs on the wall. But this checklist was not the doing of a teacher or a school administrator. Instead the mastermind behind the chart was none other than an eager young student.

 

Like the rest of the school, the cafeteria is brand new and impeccably clean. In long tables, many younger girls could be seen finishing up their lunches. One of the girls, Mahima Gohil, 11, was eager to chat about her experience at SV Randesan.

“My favorite class is chemistry,” said Mahima. Her English is good considering that when she arrived at the school less than a year ago, she could not speak the language. Like all other students at SV Randesan, Mahima’s schedule begins at seven in the morning and ends at nine in the evening.

 

The 14-hour day extends beyond the confines of the classroom. The girls participate in dance, play time aarti, a Hindu religious ritual of worship. [Also included in the schedule is a compulsory hour of yoga. “It helps me with my schedule,” Mahima said.

 

Shah also spoke of the benefits of yoga. “Their bodies and mind are totally different. It helps them settle,” said Shah.

 

In contrast to the younger girls who sit at the tables and talk in excited chatters, several young women calmly stand in line waiting for their turn to receive food from the lunch buffet. The women are members of the first graduating class of an intensive four-month long vocational training program. The program provides English classes and computer training to young women ages 21 to 27 in the hopes that these young women will be able to find jobs and be independent without feeling pressured to be married.

A devoted follower of the Swaminarayan faith, Shah is clearly guided by the ethos of her own faith. In addition to her position as principle, she takes on a more nurturing role to her younger students especially to the new ones who are unaccustomed to living away from home and need extra attention during the day and sometimes in the late hours of the night.

But the additional hours spent comforting a homesick child does not seem to bother Shah in the slightest, “So you know becoming a parent of 400 girls. Don't you think it is very interesting for anybody who really want to see some good things in life?” she asked with a slight smile.