‘When I meet God, I must be able to sign my name’: India’s school for older women | Vidhi Doshi

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A Maharashtra village is giving women denied childhood education a chance to finally catch up on schooling, in a country where female illiteracy is high

For the past year, Gangubai has been picking up discarded newspapers or chocolate wrappers she finds in her village. At home, she pores over her pile of scraps, trying to read the words written on them. Whenever they prove too difficult, she goes to a neighbours house to ask for help. Aged 65, Gangubai is learning to read for the first time.

She is one of 28 women in the village of Phangne in Maharashtra, western India, who have started attending the aajibaichi shala, the school for grandmothers.Every day, between 2pm and 4pm, the aajis, or grandmothers, of Phangne meet in a colourful bamboo hut, uniformed in pink saris and holding schoolbags. For the aajis, the school is a last chance to learn to read and write. I go to school with joy, says Gangubai.

Gangubai lives alone. Her husband died many years ago, and she says getting an education has given her life a renewed sense of purpose. After all these years, I finally got the chance. I never thought I would go to school, and look now I can read the whole alphabet.

None of the women in Gangubais class attended school when they were girls. Household chores kept them away. I had seven sisters and one brother, says Gangubai, wiping a slate clean at her house as she prepares to demonstrate her new writing skills.

None of us went to school. We were poor. I used to see rich people sending their daughters, and I always wanted to go. But I was never allowed to. If I went to school, who would bring water from the well, or make cow dung cakes [for fuel] or wash the familys clothes?

According to her teacher, Gangubai is the best student in her class. She loves studying. She tries to read anything she sees words on walls, in peoples houses, everywhere, says Sheetal More.

Gangubai, 65, shows off her reading skills. Her teacher says shes the best student in the class

Though students like Gangubai race ahead, many women struggle to write even a few letters of the alphabet. Its very different to teaching young children, says More. A lot of the women keep forgetting what we have learned so you have to teach them slowly, with patience. You cant scold them like children, because they are aajis. Elderly people are supposed to be treated with respect in Indian culture. Many of them have hearing problems, many of them cant see. It will take time, but one day they will learn. It is their wish, thats why they come to class every day, she says.

According to the last census, 273 million Indians cannot read or write. Women are 15% less likely than men to be literate, which means they are often excluded from important economic and political decisions in the household and society. Though a number of government initiatives since independence have increased female literacy, older generations have never had the chance to catch up on years of lost education.

It is humiliating to go to the bank and give your thumbprint. Thats why its important to learn to sign your name, says Ramabai, who attends Mores class. Who knows, if wed been given the chance to study when we were children, we may all have become doctors.

Sheetalbai, 90, has been trying to write the letter a for almost a year. Her handwriting is still shaky, and she still forgets what the letter looks like a few hours after class. But she will not give up. I like learning, she says, smiling. Whatever I learn, Ill take up with me to God.

Sheetalbai is one of the oldest women attending classes. When I see my grandchildren going to school, I feel that I should have gone, she says.

Sheetalbai, 90, in the courtyard of her house with her grandchildren. She is one of the oldest students in the class. Photograph: Vidhi Doshi

The school was set up in March last year by Yogendra Bangar, a teacher at the villages elementary school, who is behind a series of development projects in Phangne including building toilets for every household and introducing clean drinking water. Last year during the Shivaji festival in the village, there were readings from religious books. One of the aajis said, I wish I could read those books. Thats how I got the idea to start the school, he says.

More, who has been teaching the aajis for the past year, left school when she was 15. When Yogendra first asked me to take the class I was worried. I cant tell an older woman what to do. He was asking me to teach my own mother-in-law, she says. But the aajis are so eager to learn. They are obedient, and they never make me feel like I cant teach them something, just because Im younger than them.

They tell me that they dont want to go up to heaven as illiterates. They say, When I meet God, I should at least be able to sign my name.

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