March 08, 2017: ‘When you educate a woman, you educate the society’ – a famous saying from the earlier times proved to be satiated when a woman from Rajasthan determined to change the notion of education in the society. Sumeeti Mittal is the founder of Pratham Sikhsha, a charitable organization in Jaipur, Rajasthan laid the initiative to promote the core of primary education for the impoverished section of society.
The beginning of Pratham Sikhsha
While touring across the world, Sumeeti realized that there is a fine line between Indians and western countries which alienate us from them. She learned that the point of difference was lying in the primary education of underprivileged section of society. It was then she discerned that there was a dire need for primary education in India.
“Ever since my childhood, I wanted to help people in a way that cultivates a sense of Independence in them. I have been very passionate about my own education as well, hence I wanted to impart education in every way possible – because I believe that with education you can achieve anything in life.”, told Sumeeti Mittal to Newsgram.
‘Pratham Sikhsha’ is a Hindi word meaning – ‘First Education’. It was started in 2005, with the aim of imparting education to deprived children who has no access to basic education and empower women to improve their lives and earn a respectable job for themselves.
Redefinition of Education by Sumeeti Mittal
Although our Indian education is a well renowned and the best-considered system of education in the world, however, we lack in the proper deliverance of education. With the lack of qualitative education and callousness of teachers as well as parents, one realizes too late that the child can not indeed read or write well.
“We are blindly following western education, little do we realize that there is more to be done to meet the quality standards of western countries. There is no concern over the child’s performance in class, and with the rules like – No failing of students has impaired the education scene furthermore. Ultimately it is the teacher who is responsible for the student’s failure. Teachers will never be found at the backfoot if such system persists.” told Sumeeti on the education system of India.
She also emphasized the importance of ‘Moral Education in schools. Learning should be adorned with discipline and values to inculcate a moral behavior in a child.
The Founder of Pratham Sikhsha also stressed the role of a woman in the society. She quoted by saying “Females have to be become powerful and realize their inner strength.”. Women of the backward class no longer have to stick to conventional methods of earning, they can easily find a reputable job with help of Pratham Sikhsha. Her future objective is to align education with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mission Skilled India, and for the same purpose, she has introduced some courses in her organization.
Here’s how Pratham Sikhsha is distinctive from others in the field of education:
Practical learning in Plumbing, electrician, stitching and other related courses
Employing women from slum as teachers to set a live example and propel other women to earn a respectable earning
Every Saturday of the month sessions are conducted for child’s female relative to counsel and educate the basic health care routine
The student is advised to repeat the class if he or she fails to grasp the core of learning in the respective grade
Moral education introduced in schools with a better approach, students enact plays on these moral values
Imparts nursing education to women who have completed their 12th and thus contracting them in government hospitals
Initiatives like Pratham Sikhsha are a boon for the society. Sumeeti faced resistance from her surroundings when she was in the thinking phase of the initiative. Despite the unpropitious situation, she was able to lay the foundation of her charity trust. Sumeeti believes that one can achieve anything with the extract of faith within oneself.
"Feminism is when a woman has her full voice, and her full decision-making authority wherever she is in her life, in her home, in her community and in her workplace. If she has her voice and can take any decision, then she is fully empowered. And if you believe that, then you are feminist, in my opinion"
VOA Africa Division’s Linord Moudou spoke to Melinda Gates about women’s empowerment, work in Africa, the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and how men can benefit from women’s empowerment. The interview also touched on the pay gap between men and women and the anti-vaccination movement.
Q: Melinda Gates, thank you so much for joining us on the Voice of America.
Melinda Gates: Thanks for having me.
Q: You just released a book, The Moment of Lift. First of all, you are well known as a accomplished businesswoman and a philanthropist. Why was it important for you to become an author and write this book?
Gates: Well, I have met so many women and families over 20 years of foundation travels to many, many, many countries, and the stories these women have shared with me about their lives have called me to action. And I wanted to write a book that would call others to action, because I believe that equality can’t wait. When we make women equal in society, it lifts up their family and society, and we need to make sure that we really get to equality for women all over the world.
Q: So when we talk about equality for women, how would you describe it? What are some of the basic steps?
Gates: To me, equality for women shows up when they have their full voice and their full decision-making authority in their home, in their community and in their workplace. If we can make sure women have that, you will have true equality in society for all women.
Q: So, why did you think of this title, The Moment of Lift? What is the moment?
Gates: Well, when I was a little girl my dad was an Apollo engineer, and he worked on that first mission that went up to space, and my sister and I would get to be in our jammies late at night, watching that that rocket take off. And I love that moment when the engines were ignited, and the Earth was shaking and rumbling, and that rocket would lift off against the forces of gravity that pushed it down, and head off to the moon. And I thought about women. I have thought about all the barriers that hold us down in various societies, and if we could remove those barriers, we would get this moment of lift for women and men all over the world.
Q: And let’s talk about some of those barriers. You’ve traveled around the world, working and empowering women and girls. What are some of the commonalities you were able to see, to witness?
Gates: Well, I see so many women that if we allow them, as a world, to have access to contraceptives, what we know from society after society around the world is once a woman has access to contraceptives, she can time and space the births of her children. She can continue her education, she can work in the workforce if she chooses, her kids are healthier, she’s healthier, the family’s wealthier and better educated. So that barrier — every society has to make the transition through contraceptives first. If women have access to contraceptives, and their kids and they have good health, the next barrier you have to remove is education. Because when women are educated, it changes absolutely everything in their family, and even the decisions they make and what they go do in the world.
Q: So you went to an all-girls Catholic high school. So did I, actually. And one of the things I can remember is contraceptives are not a part of discussion — not very often, at least. So what prompted you to really turn your interest into enabling women to have access to contraceptives, as well as family planning? Why is it such an important part of your work?
Gates: Yes, so I was meeting so many women around the world, and I would be there to talk about vaccinations for their children, which they were thrilled to talk about. They said, “You know, I walk 10 kilometers in the heat to get them. I know the difference.” But when I turn the questions and let them ask questions of me, they would say, “But what about my health? What about that contraceptive that, at this little clinic, I can get vaccines and I used to be able to get contraceptives and now I can’t?” And it was through these rallying calls for women saying, “Why isn’t the world allowing us to have these anymore?” that I came to learn and realize the difference they make in women’s lives. And 200 million women are asking us as a world for contraceptives. It’s a very inexpensive tool. We use it in the United States. More than 90% of women use it in the United States and in Europe, and yet if we don’t allow women to have that tool, [if] we don’t provide it, they can’t lift themselves out of poverty. And so I started to realize that was a really important piece of the work.
Q: And you say in the book, as you work to empower women, others have empowered you. How so?
Gates: I think by other women sharing the stories of their lives. I would often be coming back from various countries in Africa — Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Senegal — and as I was flying home I kept thinking of all these barriers I would see holding women down in Africa. And I would think, “If women could only have this barrier removed or that.” But it was then their stories that helped me turn the question back on the U.S. and say, “How far are we really in the United States?” OK, we’ve made some distance, but less than 25% of people in Congress are women. Less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. If a woman wants to start a business in the United States, less than 2% of venture capital funding goes to women-led businesses. So they helped me see what needs to get done around the world, not just in their own countries and where we can help and intervene, but really in our own country, too, in the United States.
Q: So you talked about stories of women in the book. You also bring some of your stories in the book, and you are known to be a private woman. Why was it so important for you to share your own stories? You talk about abuse and other stories — why did you do that?
Gates: Yes. So in this book, even though I’m incredibly private, I decided to be pretty vulnerable, quite vulnerable. That was not an easy decision, but I do. I share stories of my own personal journey because they are the stories, also, of millions of other women. So this story that I do tell of abuse that I experienced — it silenced me. I lost my self-confidence. And we know millions of women around the world are in relationships where they’re being abused. Women tell me about it when I go in villages. I hear about sexual harassment in the workplace in many places in the United States. It’s a spectrum, but any type of harassment holds a woman back. It pushes her back into her corner and she doesn’t get her voice or she doesn’t feel confident to take a decision. So I choose to share a story like that, and my own climb to equality, to let everyone know it is possible.
Q: I would like to read something from the book. You write, “The first time I was asked if I was a feminist, I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t think of myself as a feminist. Twenty-two years later, I am an ardent feminist.” Feminism is a word that is celebrated by some and makes others cringe, even some women. So, what is feminism to you? How are you a feminist?
Gates: Feminism is when a woman has her full voice, and her full decision-making authority wherever she is in her life, in her home, in her community and in her workplace. If she has her voice and can take any decision, then she is fully empowered. And if you believe that, then you are feminist, in my opinion.
Q: Great. Now, the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has impacted the world. And particularly, you have worked on the continent of Africa. More than $15 billion has been invested in projects related to Africa. Would you tell us about the impact that you were able to see that has really transformed people’s lives?
Gates: Yes, so the foundation has been in existence now for over 20 years. I think the most important thing for everybody to know is we work in partnership. There is nothing the foundation has ever done without being in full partnership with others, and particularly with governments and citizens on the ground in various countries. And philanthropy is just — all it can be is this catalytic wedge. We can try things; we can experiment where you wouldn’t want a government to do that with taxpayer money. But if we can prove things out and measure it, then we can ask government to scale it up. And so I think one of the foundation’s biggest successes has been in vaccinations. Why is childhood death down, cut in half since 1990? Two enormous reasons: vaccinations and malarial bed nets. And we’re part of two large-scale partnerships to try — that we have done, worked on — to scale up vaccines, in many countries in Africa and all over the world, and to make sure that malaria bed nets through the Global Fund are distributed.
Q: So speaking of vaccinations, vaccines have helped the world get rid certain diseases, like smallpox. Today we see a resurgence of measles. And one of the reasons is because some parents in the United States refused to vaccinate their children. How does it make you feel?
Gates: When I hear that there are cases of measles in the United States, I’m incredibly frustrated. And I’m saddened to think that a global health issue that we have solved in the United States has come back because parents have believed misinformation. And, you know, no child should have measles in this country. No person who is in an immune-compromised situation in the United States should be affected by someone else because a parent has chosen not to get the measles vaccine. These are lifesaving tools. Women tell me all over Africa they walk 10 miles in the heat to get vaccines because it saves their children’s lives. So I’m saddened to see this in the United States and I hope it makes people realize how lucky we are to have vaccines in our country.
Q: Now, working on the African countries, on the African continent, as well as other countries in the world, there are some changes that cannot occur without abandoning certain cultural practices and beliefs. So how do you get people to embrace new ideas in such circumstances?
Gates: Well, everywhere we work, for instance, on the continent of Africa, you know, each country is different and then there are many, many cultures inside of each country. So what you can do, the way to work, is to go — or what we’ve chosen to do — is to work with partners who’ve been on the ground often 30 or 40 years, living with villagers, and people from the community are part of those partners. And what you do is you come in and see where the community’s at, what they’re trying to learn, what their requests and needs are, and then you start to bring in some education — educating around the things they care about and some education about tools we have here in the United States, like contraceptives. And when you’re in a trusting relationship where the villagers start to believe and understand some of the education you’ve brought in, they will start to ask for those tools. And so we do all of our work in that cultural context, [that] hopefully appropriate way.
Q: So to go back to the family planning — why is it so important? What is the message behind family planning?
Gates: Family planning is the greatest anti-poverty tool we have in the world. When a woman can time and space the births of her children, her family is healthier — her entire family — the kids are better educated, and the family is wealthier. And I met a woman named Marianne in Korogocho — in a slum, actually, in Kenya — and she summed up this family planning conversation that we’d had. There’s about 30 women there, and at the end, after two hours, she finally said — she had this beautiful baby girl in her arms, a newborn — and she said, “I want to give every good thing to this child — before I have another one.” And I thought, “Yeah. That sums up how parents feel about their children.” We want to time and space when we have children, so we can bring every good thing to our child, and then have another one.
Q: So what do you say to men in countries where women are treated unequally?
Gates: We go in and work with partners, and we say to men, “If you want your children to be healthy, you need to think about certain things that your wife is doing — the amount of unpaid labor she does, the amount she chops wood, carries water, cooks the meals — and if you’re willing to think about that and to take some of that burden away from her, she will actually be better off and your kids will be better off.” And the only way to do that is to, again, work with partners who are from the community and on the ground, and then have the village look at the tasks that women and men do, have an open conversation over time about that, and then commit to change. And when you do that — I’ve actually seen this in Malawi — the men become champions. They say, “My gosh, my whole house has changed because I’m carrying water now and my wife isn’t, or I’m chopping the firewood, and she has more time for these other things.” And so that’s a conversation we need to have all over the world. Even in the United States, women do 90 minutes more of what we call this “unpaid labor” in our homes [per day] than men do. Some of it is loving, caring work we want to do, caring for our loved ones, but some of it is just chores, right? And so we need to look at that 90 minutes, even in the U.S. — or six hours more that a woman does every day in India versus her husband — and say, “How do we redistribute the workload so women can do other things in the productive work they want to do in their lives?”