Guwahati: The struggle for gender balance and equity has taken the front burner in global policies and discussions for almost a century. In fact, its importance is emphasized by its inclusion in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, seeking to ensure women have a voice in issues that affect them, and in the world they live in. While some successes have been recorded, there is still glaring evidence of women relegated to the background in almost every part of the world.
Realizing that little efforts in communities and interfacing to change the mindset of women and girls are the first steps towards achieving an equitable world, one woman, Khem Kumari Konwar Chetri is surpassing expectations and building future female leaders with a simple mission. With her venture, Assamese Unlimited, Khem has provided a platform to help the women of Assam discover and unleash their potential for public good.
Born in Dhemaji, Assam, the limited exposure to the outside world gave Khem her first taste of disadvantage. “Growing up in Dhemaji in the 1980s was an idyllic cocoon – there was limited information, limited exposure to the greater world. Things changed when I moved to Guwahati for my +2 at Handique Girls College. A bigger world did exist, and I was seeing it for the first time. That scope multiplied immeasurably when I moved to Delhi for my graduation,” she says.
After graduating with BA Honours from the Delhi University, she joined the Institute of Integrated Learning and Management for her MBA in HR and Finance. Armed with such knowledge and qualification, she had successful stints with acclaimed organisations like Adecco and Airtel as an HR executive. However successful she was, she didn’t quite feel accomplished until she had an opportunity to impact young people directly as center director at Founding Years Learning Solutions.
Now with her venture, Assamese Unlimited, Khem is helping to break the barriers and limitations that girls in Assam and beyond face by giving them education and helping them discover their inner confidence. “We believe that a girl can do whatever she wants to do, only if she believes that she can do it. When I moved to Delhi as a student, I felt a lack of confidence in the classroom. Coming from an Assamese medium school meant my English wasn’t prim and proper. That acted as a barrier for me, even to ask questions on what was being taught was tough.
“Sadly after over 20 years today, thousands and thousands of girls across Assam face the same problem. And like it or not, English is the means for global communications. It is also a means of breaking into the corporate sector, and doing well in it. Assamese Unlimited provides free spoken English programs that kickstart the journey to speaking fluent English,” she adds.
Another important aspect of success is building self-confidence. Many countries around the world have failed to establish the kind of systems that we find in advanced countries designed to build confidence in children, especially the girl-child. With Assamese Unlimited, Khem and her team are helping to bridge the gap in the Indian education system by simply creating a platform where every child, irrespective of background, is able to express herself.
“India is a marks-focussed society. And with larger class sizes, very few students get the opportunity to speak or act or demonstrate their knowledge. So, what happens is that a select few students in a particular class get opportunities from say Grade 6 till they pass out. The silent majority stays silent. And that affects their personality– in college, while appearing for interviews, and in jobs. At Assamese Unlimited, we give every girl an opportunity to put forth their point of view, make presentations and do much more. This builds confidence,” she submits.
Speaking further, she says the venture is also committed to building a healthy competitive spirit in local communities through activities like quizzes and challenges which keep them engaged and kindle their spirit to do better. As a social project, students do not have to pay a dime to get all of the benefits that the programme offers. From the basics of spoken English, storytelling, cultural programmes and confidence building, it is a potpourri of benefits for girls and women in Assam.
“The first rule we have is “Forget grammar”. As a foreign language, maybe only academics can get English grammar 100% correctly. We take a practical approach to speaking English, identifying interventions where English may be required – from giving a job interview to ordering at a restaurant and going shopping. Most importantly, we give girls an opportunity to express in English, something most of them haven’t got in their lives. Here I am not talking of school kids alone, but also of master’s degree students who write in English but never speak it,” she says.
The idea of storytelling was borne out of the desire to help the students create connections and explore new horizons. As for the cultural programmes, they are a great means of expression and building personality and character. The forthcoming e-magazine will also be a great addition to their portfolio.
“Any girl who hasn’t got the confidence in herself to go out and aim for whatever she dreams of will find our program beneficial. Anyone from Class 6 and above can join us. And we also welcome homemakers. Because many of their children are going to English-medium schools where teachers may interact with parents in English. If these moms feel a bit overwhelmed by that, we are here to help.
It may seem like we have gone past that stage of humanity, but we haven’t. Research shows that there’s still a lot of work to be done to empower girls,” she adds.
When asked if getting involved in the social enterprise movement is one of the highest impact things to do, Khem says, “I wouldn’t want to get into comparisons. For me someone who teaches her house-help to read and write is making the same impact as the largest social organisation. It’s the intent that matters. Some people are lucky enough to get a bigger stage, others do it as best they can.”
Talking about the challenges, she adds, “Cynicism is the biggest barrier. I’ve got a student who was wondering why someone would do something for free. Then there are those who join the programme, but are unwilling to pass the message to their friends. As a society we need to help each other more. Of course, funding and revenue generation becomes an issue. Especially for someone like us who don’t charge anything from students. And since you are not an NGO, corporates don’t want to donate as they can’t get tax benefits.”
While she gives her mother credit for ensuring she and her siblings had an education, and decried the difficulty in raising revenues for a unique organisation like hers, she is encouraged by the amazing success stories the Assamese Unlimited has brought about. “One is of a young girl (studying in Class 8) who for the first few classes would turn off her video and keep quiet. She would drop off the class when her turn came to speak or present, always citing network issues as the cause. But, we were successful in transforming her, today she has got the confidence to speak boldly, express herself, and showcase her best side to the world.
“Then there’s this MA student from one of Assam’s top government universities who had been doing great in all things written while getting under-par marks in her vivas. Our programme gave her the self-assurance to bring out the knowledge inside her brain distinctively and thus absolutely impress her professors,” she notes.
With such impact, the goal is to continue to build on the successes recorded and grow to become a formidable movement, transforming the lives of women and girls in Assam, the Northeast region, across the rest of India.
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