The empowerment chain reaction

February 21st, 2014

(First appeared in Grassroots February 2014)


An army of ‘12th pass’ village girls is triggering a societal transformation, and enjoying it, too.

It is a balmy afternoon in Karaimedu village in Tamil Nadu’s Nagapattinam District. Along a cart track 2 kms off the main road, an English rhyme can be heard above an assortment of sounds predominantly from crows and cattle. It is a group of some 20 children energetically participating in an action song about Nature. They have occupied an 8′ x 12′ cemented platform with a thatched roof, adjoining a thatched house.

Leading them is a diminutive young woman, joyfully enacting the song. She laughs out along with the children when spinning around to show the earth in rotation. Her name is Kanimozhi. She teaches supplementary English, Tamil and Mathematics, to Standard IV and V students of the nearby Panchayat Matriculation School. Every afternoon, she takes two- hourly classes for them.


Kanimozhi is an Akka (elder sister) with Vidyarambam, an NGO that offers free supplementary education to rural children in government schools, using child-friendly teaching methods. After a course in Nursing, she had worked as a nurse in a Karaikal hospital. But their daughter staying in a hostel and working some 120 kms away was clearly not her parents’ plan for her. So Kanimozhi returned, was introduced to Vidyarambam and underwent training in the NGO’s teaching methods.  The job was literally at her doorstep, to the great relief of her family. Since then, afternoons in the neighbourhood have been lively, with the womenfolk entertained by the children in action.

Just two houses away, Kanimozhi’s cousin Parimala is teaching a group of younger children seated in a circle beside the cart road. She is Karaimedu’s first B Ed, awaiting her M.A (History) results. But there is no question of her travelling for employment, especially what with her father, a Forest Officer, coming home only during the weekends.

Rs 1,000 for two enjoyable hours a day with the children is not bad, as Kanimozhi acknowledges. It is an assured supplementary income for her family that lives off a leased agricultural land. Additionally, both cousins work as ‘temporary’ teachers in their village schools, earning only a similar pay for full time work.

Triggering a transformation

Vidyarambam was born because one man refused to ignore a problem that stares people in the face. Following a career with L&T and then a stint in the Gulf, Mr V Ranganathan was in Vattakottai, Kanyakumari district, in the summer of 2002. He was scouting for a place to settle down for his retirement, maybe teaching a useful thing or two to village kids. He got talking to pre-primary school children. Soon it was evident to him that the kids knew little of Maths or even Tamil. ‘Why do you go to school?’, he asked them in desperation. The children answered by opening their bags and triumphantly pulling out the battered aluminium plates they use for the free midday meals. Soon Mr Ranganathan found out that the dropout rate was the highest at Standard VIII: that is when the dreaded English is introduced in State Board schools. He realised that if only the village children were helped to get over the hurdle, more children would complete schooling and would do better in life. He took help from former teachers to develop indigenous and ingenious ways to make learning a fun thing and not a torture. He enrolled village girls who had passed standard XII and trained them to be tutors, nay, Akkas. The care and the freedom evident in their interactions with the children highlight the attitudinal differentiator that makes Vidyarambam different. That has allowed this NGO to silently trigger a societal transformation in over 5,000 Tamil Nadu villages by boosting the learning skills of over 7 lac children, mostly first generation students, replacing their diffidence with a new confidence to aspire and achieve.

Equally, Vidyarambam has been a life-changing experience for over 6,200 village girls who have been Akkas with Vidyarambam at some stage in their lives. As Parimala and Kanimozhi explain, but for the jobs at their door steps, they would have been sitting at home confined to constricting spaces, doing nothing. In rural societies, once the family decides that the girl has studied “enough”, then the next natural event is marriage, and “earlier the better”. There is no question of them stepping out for jobs which would normally entail walking a few kms to the main road and then catching a bus. Families and society would prefer that they stay at home. Vidyarambam offers an interesting and socially acceptable alternative, to stretch the gap between studies in the teens and marriage in their twenties.

Rural societies still respect a teacher, and more so a Vidyarambam teacher with her special teaching methods and skills. She is perceived as an asset to the family, now and into the future. The greatest thrill for these girls is the positive feedback from their wards’ parents.The families of the Akkas also earn the reflected respect, which boosts the standing and self image of these teenagers/ young women. The job gives them a circle of likeminded friends – their Facebook as it were but more real and reliable, to confide in and to hold hands. The sense of belonging is strong. And Vidyarambam gives them a mission in life – at least till marriage takes them to another place – by empowering them to be change agents who leverage quality education to transform young lives, triggering a societal transformation.

Making them proud

“My father is very proud of me, especially when I tell him about my meeting at the Collector’s office”. That is Karthika who joined Vidyarambam as a 20 year-old  Akka in 2005. A B.Sc. in Mathematics, she grew rapidly to become Assessor, Asst Co-ordinator and Master Trainer. Meanwhile, Vidyarambam facilitated her BEd with flexi-time and finance. In 2009, at the age of 25, she became the Head Mistress of Vidyarambam’s Rotary Model School that caters to the Tsunami-affected and fishing communities in Nagapattinam. She is happy that the community is changing for the better, with the Vidyarambam School’s children educating and influencing their parents. “Vidyarambam showed me a world outside my village”, she says. Daughter of a milk vendor from Srikazhi, Karthika enjoys her new standing in the community. She stays with 16 of her young colleagues, chosen from the best and qualified Akkas.The teachers also enjoy the opportunity for cross functional contributions. Many of the songs-with-a-message as well as some teaching methods and charts that are employed across Vidyarambam have been developed by the teachers and perfected by the ‘Product Development’ teams at each District, which they call Resource Centres.

Sathya and Karthika

A similar case of self- development is 24 year old Sathya. The eldest of three daughters of a marginal farmer of Mayiladuthurai, she is the Asst Head Mistress of the School. She “ was a dull student”, but with Mr Ranganathan’s encouragement, has become a confident public speaker. “I have lost the fear of failure”, she declares. Satya is very proud of the Founder’s trust in her abilities, underlining a serious motivational factor that is common to the team: access to the Founder, who knows each Akka and her family members.

Seeing the team in action, in classrooms and more so at various events, what strikes one is the quiet and no-fuss style. Missing are cell phones thrust to the ears, and frenzy of any kind. It is well-oiled team work – somewhat like a trapeze team that performs based on mutual trust and predictability.

Conventional motivational factors of the corporate world are unsuited to understand what the Akkas’ engagement with Vidyarambam means to them. The Rs 1,000 they earn every month cannot explain the passion they bring to their jobs. They operate at the higher planes of motivation, of joyful group-belonging, of recognition that boosts self esteem, and of self actualisation itself. The Akkas are any HR manager’s dream.

And to imagine that these are “12th pass” village girls who know that the engagement is no lifetime bond! They will get married and move on in life. But if the past 12 years of Vidyarambam are any indication, their liberating experience of empowerment makes them compulsive change agents whereever life takes them.

They have discovered their mission for life. And

One Response to “The empowerment chain reaction”

  1. vs asokan Says:

    inspiring; i nver conceived these things are happening around us
    thomas’s writing is so sincere and transparent, i felt myself one among the crowd

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