The inspiring story of Aarti Naik
It takes some effort to get through to Aarti Naik. No matter what time of the day you call her up—at 8 am or 9 pm—she is either in a teaching session or preparing for one. Finally, we speak on a Sunday morning, the only day when she gets a few hours to herself. Aarti runs Sakhi for Girls Education (http://sakhiforgirlseducation.org), an organisation that aims to create safe and quality learning spaces for girls living in slums. She has been at it since 2008, educating girls from Std 1 to 8. Sakhi focuses on basic education—training young wards how to read, write and count—but more importantly, she also teaches them life skills by providing them an opportunity to express their views and thereby find their voice, empowering them to face the world.
Until some years ago, Aarti was in the same shoes as the young students who she teaches today. In 2003, Aarti failed in two subjects at the State Secondary Certificate (SSC) examination. Because of poor financial conditions, her family put a stop to her education. For the following three years, Aarti’s world was the 15×15 feet room that she and her family occupied. She wove friendship bands and other bracelets, and in return got paid Rs 9 per day. For three years, Aarti did little else. But she also kept saving: Rs 9 every day for three years. Then one day she realised she had Rs 4,000! So Aarti did what she always wanted to do; she promptly reappeared for the Std 10 examinations. When the results came, Aarti had cleared the two papers she had failed in with flying colours!
That was also when something changed in her. “When I was a high school dropout, struggling to study, there was no one to support and guide me. Looking around I realised that there were other girls like me, my friends and neighbours, who were also going through similar challenges and weren’t able to complete their education. Many girls in the slum had to drop out of school because they didn’t have the basic literacy levels needed to clear the higher standards. These girls needed help.” And Aarti was going to give it to them. So in 2008 she started Sakhi for Girls Education to help the girls living in the same slum as her in Mulund, Mumbai. “I became a Sakhi for those girls. Sakhi means a female friend who always inspires, guides and supports for a good cause.”
Every great journey comes with its challenges. And for Aarti, the challenges began at home. “My father was initially a bit reluctant. He couldn’t understand why I suddenly wanted to educate my neighbours. So I had to explain the merit of the idea to him. Then came the task of convincing my neighbours to send their daughters to me for training.” For that Aarti went door to door, literally, and explained the importance of education to her neighbours. With missionary zeal, Aarti started training her first batch of students: five girls. Every evening Aarti would teach the girls whatever she had learnt. It wasn’t long before she realised that she needed to expand her horizons as well. So she began to take English lessons. “That was the only way I could teach them better,” she says.
At the end of the year, Aarti invited the parents of her wards and their neighbours for a programme of sorts. The girls were asked to speak on a topic of their choice. This was the first time they would face an audience and the first time their parents would see their child on a public platform. The evening was a hit. It didn’t take long for others to realise the important of what Aarti was doing. So they queued up outside her house and asked her to take their daughters in.
Aarti has completed her HSC exams but the sheer volume of work (that she shares with four other volunteers) has prevented her from completing her graduation. It isn’t difficult to believe her. She spends most of her time planning syllabi and executing it. There is rarely a time she isn’t in a class. Today, Sakhi now teaches 75 girls daily in 3 batches. On Saturdays the number expands to 450 girls who come in from the surrounding slum areas to take part in the Girls’ Book Bank. As part of the Girls’ Book Bank the girls are encouraged to read and pass on their books to other girls in their neighbourhood. In addition to this, every day after school, Aarti provides nutritious food to 75 girls through Sakhi’s Girls Nutrition Program.
The increase in numbers has meant that Aarti has had to look for a larger place to house Sakhi. She’s found a room in her slum that she’s converted into a fun colourful Girls Learning Centre, and uses community halls on weekends when the number of girls is larger. “Seeing the noticeable difference in their daughters’ confidence and improvement in academics, some of the girls’ mothers approached me earlier this year and asked me to teach them as well. So now, since June, I’ve also started a weekly literacy class for 10 mothers. I call it Mothers’ School!”
Ask Aarti about Sakhi’s future and pat comes the reply. “In the next three to five years I’d like to open five centres in different slum areas of the city. I want to reach out to at least a 1,000 girls and make a difference in their lives.”
Her notable work has drawn the attention of various organisations and publications over the years, and Aarti has a whole host of awards to her credit. A recent addition is a certificate from the International Literacy Association, US, for featuring in their list of 30 Under 30 Literacy Leaders from around the world.
Aart now also has the support of several organisations, which ensures that finances aren’t as much of a challenge as they were when she started out. “But I could do with help in the form of a full-time teacher,” she tells me. “It will free up some of my time.”
And what does she hope to do in that time? Aarti’s reply is prompt: “I’d really like to complete my graduation someday.”