One Women Show: The Change Maker

Aarti Naik is a slum-based young woman and educationist who runs Sakhi for Girls Education, which started in 2008. It’s a learning centre to create quality learning spaces for the slums and marginalised girls from Mumbai. Today, for more than 15 years of Naik’s efforts, 400 girls now have access to a girls' learning space inside their own slum community

Hailing from the slums of Mulund, northeast of Mumbai, Aarti Naik as a teenager always dreamed of completing her education and imparting education to the slum girls. Naik was different from her peers, although her problems like a financial shortage, lack of sanitation and small living space were similar to her community girls, she always stood as the leader, a fighter determined for change. Back then when Naik failed her State Secondary School Exam (Class X) she was taunted to drop education and take up domestic work, but Aarti knew failing in a class is not the end, she took the failure as an opportunity and decided to give the re-exam.

Naik knew joining a coaching class would help her crack the examination tough nut but lack of financial support was the biggest challenge. Also, her parents were not much educated and were not willing to support her, but the hunger to learn made her earn herself, she started making artificial jewellery at home and saving enough she managed to join a tutorial and pass her X boards after three struggling years. This eventually opened her doors for higher learning, as a student of SNDT College, Mumbai, Naik always dreamed of guiding slum girls to pass their school exams. Helping them to pursue higher education was her biggest desire, but didn’t know the direction. Just then Ashoka Venture (NGO) came to her help. The organisation taught, trained and developed Naik into ‘Aarti - the Changemaker’.

The Changemaker

“We can create our own destiny,” believes Nair. The moment I decided to impart education, I tried to persuade my friends for learning higher but they often side-lined my vision stating that pursuing education won’t change anything; we are destined for domestic work, says Naik.

This eventually made me more determined for my educational mission and I decided to start from the grassroots level, teaching preschool girls. Fortunately, I came across Ashoka Venture, I spotted the opportunity with them and the organisation truly changed my life and gave birth to Sakhi, a social venture for girls’ education, underlines Naik.

She goes on to say, "Ashoka Venture’s one-year workshop and panel discussion helped me develop teaching confidence and my dedication and hard work finally paid off when I bagged the ‘Changemaker’ title an honour for bringing change in society which I started by teaching 5 slum girls." The organisation even provided me a Rs 10,000 grant to start my educational service, she adds.

Sakhi For Girls Education

Started in 2008, Sakhi is the dream vision of Naik providing a safe and quality learning space to encourage and pursue higher education. It aims to develop educational interest and reduce school dropout. As a learning centre, Sakhi offers an education training programme, especially building basic literacy, numeracy and life skills training among younger girls in slums and marginalised sections of Mumbai.

Educational programmes under Sakhi 

There are various programmes implemented under Sakhi that carry out Naik’s educational mission.

Girls Audio School: This initiative was initially started during the pandemic to battle the Coronavirus fear among kids and divert their minds amid the crisis and is still continued due to the amazing response it received. This programme not only creates story audio for kids but also aims at training young girls, the knack of audio recording and storytelling.

Girls Saving Bank: Girls learn to save and value money, the practice helps to develop a sense of security for money, a belief that their small share in a piggy bank will support their education in a tiny way. 

Girls English Academy: It’s an online venture through which girls are taught motivational lessons in English. It also includes training the girl to fight against abuse, the good and bad touches thus making them aware of the consequences of physical intimacy at a tender age.

Girls School At Home: Through this programme, Naik is developing change-makers like her and imparting basic learning education to eradicate the number of school dropouts from slums. This initiative was started when the lockdown rules were relaxed. Under this programme, one teaching leader is assigned to teach three students at their home. Likewise, the programme was successful during Covid and is now continued at the centre with around 26 teachers and 56 students.

Girls Book Library: It includes giving books to around 400 girls for reading and later initiating discussions to understand the learnings among the girl. This programme is basically to monitor the girls whom Naik is unable to fund under Sakhi and are aided with small help in a week that includes a meal box, educational and stationery kit.

Likewise, there are many small ventures often started and implemented for the girls’ well-being. Learning and audio school for girls’ mothers is also started to empower older women and help them be literate with the basics of writing and learning. Through audio schools, the mothers’ oratory skills are developed.

The challenges

As per Naik, the challenges were humongous and still continue to break her path. She exclaims, it’s a ‘One Woman Show’ and have faced so much that hurdles don’t scare me anymore. She recalls when I vowed the service of education no one trusted me and my parents often disapproved of my action thinking I was going crazy making girls sit at home and teach, creating difficulties for my family as the space was small. There were times when I thought of dropping my vision because for almost 8 years, I was running short of funds and there was no one to support me, added Naik. 

She further shares, "In the initial days, I used to work part-time, study in college and simultaneously manage my teaching mission at home. But when I was bestowed with the changemaker title, my family developed the trust in me and started supporting my vision." "Today right from my parents to my slum community every one supports me in my good work. This all happened because I believed in myself and my dreams," Naik states confidently.

The Covid Saga

The challenges during Covid were grave. Firstly, I lost my brother and then an accident kept me bedridden for almost two months. But this didn’t stop me. I rose from the ashes and with new hope and determination, I started my audio school to share an inspiring audio story daily online. This created positive hope for girls isolated at home. Apart from this, with proper precaution I managed to distribute groceries, sanitary pads and health kits in the slum. Though, it was very challenging. I was walking with an operated knee also the pandemic trauma and virus transmission was at their peak creating life chaos and fear, says Naik.

Responsibility as a changemaker

As a changemaker the responsibility is huge. Young girls look up to me and my vision they find me as a ray of hope and I live and work for their empowerment. Imparting education is my life and teaching is my soul. So, I work with honesty with all my efforts and could proudly say in last 15 years since Sakhi started, no girl from my slum community has dropped her school, states Naik. She said, “Saying I can do it, is quite easy but doing it, in reality, is the real challenge. But I am fortunate to adduce and act with the help of an amazing team, the real changemakers helping me in my educational service.”

Awards and recognition

Naik believes the award and recognition she receives, inspires her community girls and helps to develop more changemakers for society. She says, "It’s a token of appreciation that flashes my 15 years long journey as an educationalist which I started at the age of 19. It all started with my first award from Ashoka Venture and the list continues." "To name a few - Queen Young Leader Award, Karmaveer Chakra Award, Jijamata Puruskar, Femina Women’s Award and California University recognition among others," adds Naik.

"But among all, the title of ‘Tai’ (Elder sister in Marathi) bestowed by my students and the slum community is very dear to me. Right from the school-going kid to an elderly person - everyone calls me Tai and it motivates me to work more," she stresses.

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