Happy International Women’s Day! This year we’re highlighting three amazing girls from Project Lehar. Project Lehar, which means “wave” in Urdu, works to empower and improve the quality of life of out-of-school adolescent girls. Begun by Aga Khan Foundation India in 2015 with support from the United Nations Population Fund and Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, Project Lehar is being implemented in select urban blocks in Bihar’s capital, Patna. The project enables girls from marginalized communities living in the Phulwarisharief and Danapur areas of Patna, to pursue either scholastic or vocational skills training. The scholastic support being provided in centers established by AKF aims to build the girls’ learning levels so that they can either re-join formal schooling or prepare for their Class 10 Board examinations. Vocational skills training is also provided at AKF’s centers where girls are trained in skills that are in high demand and will enable them to earn a better income and gain financial independence. Cutting across both the scholastic and vocational skills courses is life skills training which helps the girls build their confidence and understanding of how to successfully overcome the challenges they face in their day-to-day lives.

Meet Manju

Manju Kumari, 15 years old, is a committed champion of education and a role model for her younger siblings, motivating them to continue their education. Manju dropped out of school, but with the support of Project Lehar was able catch up on her studies and re-join formal education. She now proudly attends a government school and is currently in Class 8.

Manju, a beneficiary of Aga Khan Foundation's adolescent girls empowerment program in Patna, Bihar, India, with friends and family. (Photo: AKDN)
Manju Kumar, a beneficiary of AKF's adolescent girls empowerment program in Patna, with friends and family.

Manju’s Struggle

Manju Kumari struggled in school from the beginning and always fell behind with her homework as she couldn’t understand how to answer the questions. Unable to keep up with her friends, she dropped out of school when she was 12 years old and thought she would never return.

After being out of school for three years, Manju’s friend told her about Project Lehar’s Chilbili center nearby where scholastic training was being provided along with life skills coaching. Initially her parents were opposed to her attending the center, thinking that it would be a waste of time like her earlier time at school had been. However, after learning that Manju would be working towards the goal of completing her Class 10 exams, they were more reassured and supported their daughter attending the center for scholastic training.

Manju explains that when she attended the center she felt a big difference between her ability to learn in the center and her earlier time in school, “Before I was not learning and couldn’t understand anything but when I attended the center the teachers taught us well and encouraged us to ask questions if we didn’t understand something.” Manju’s mother also observed that “earlier, she was unable to learn at school, but when she was at the center she would come back excited, telling us about what she had learnt and wanting to complete her homework.”

Building a Brighter Future

After spending six months at the center, Manju’s confidence in her newly acquired skills and knowledge grew. Recognizing that she now had the tools to succeed throughout her academic career, the teachers helped her re-enroll in a government school, where she joined Class 8. She enjoys learning new concepts and says that “Now when I am given a problem or question I know I can do it. I can see that through a good education I will be able to understand many things and get better job opportunities.”

After realizing the long term benefits of education, Manju has taken on the responsibility of tutoring her two younger sisters to prevent them from falling behind in class. She also urges them to be regular in their studies so that they can live better lives, telling them, “Since our parents aren’t educated, we should be educated and accomplish something for them.” Manju’s experience at the center has enabled her to return to school and develop a love of learning. As a result, she is now working hard to educate herself, and her siblings, so that they can carve out a better future for their family.

Meet Soni

Soni Kumari, 19 years old, is a remarkable girl who found the courage to overcome many obstacles in her community and has found a job with Café Coffee Day. With the support of Project Lehar Soni was able to access vocational skills training which has enabled her to earn a living and help her family.

Soni Kumar, a beneficiary of the adolescent girls empowerment programme, at her coffee station Aims Hospital in Patna where she earns a living. (Photo: AKDN)
Soni Kumar, a beneficiary of the adolescent girls empowerment program, at her coffee station Aims Hospital in Patna where she earns a living.

Envisioning a Different Future

“I never thought it would be possible for me to have a job; instead, I thought I would always just have to stay at home.” Although this was the life Soni Kumari had expected for herself, the past six months of her life have enabled her to envision a different future.

Soni was the first girl who found a job after successfully completing a two-month hospitality and retail skills course provided by Project Lehar. She is working at a Café Coffee Day branch as a waitress and earns $75 a month.

A Change of Plans

When AKF’s community mobilizers were conducting house visits, they approached Soni and her family. Soni’s father, the main bread winner in the family, has an irregular income and planned to get Soni married. However, through the home visit Soni learnt that she could find employment with the skills she would acquire in the vocational course and saw this as an opportunity to financially support her family. She says that she often thought, “There are so many of us in the house and only one earner, how can I help?” This motivated her to enroll for the course immediately rather than waiting for her parents to plan her marriage.

During the two-month training, Soni learned about customer service, clear communication, and how to interview for jobs. After getting the job at Café Coffee Day she says she was excited, but also anxious about the prospect of traveling to work and dealing with customers. Now Soni bravely travels the long distance to get to work and can prepare orders faster than she thought possible. Seeing how she has been able to overcome these challenges, Soni is now ready to push herself further and says, “I want to continue my education while working at Café Coffee Day, so that I can access even better job opportunities.”

Soni and her parents have faced a lot of criticism from their family as a result of Soni’s new job, but Soni remains determined to work despite their disapproval. Although she sometimes gets affected by this, Soni says that she is proud of the progress she has made and tries to keep this in mind. Her parents too say that they are proud of Soni’s achievements. Her mother, who never had the chance to get an education says, “I’m very happy that my daughter can get ahead in life; I don’t want her to have the same life as mine and am really glad Soni is working.”

Unlocking Potential

The reaction from other girls her age has been quite different to that of her parents’ generation. Soni has received recognition and triggered the curiosity of other girls in her neighborhood, who ask Soni to advise them on how to enroll for the vocational skills training, so they too can find employment.

Soni is appreciative of her family’s support and the training she received from Project Lehar, which has helped her to see her own potential and given her the courage to make her own plans for the future.

Meet Jyothi

Jyothi Kumari, 15 years old, is full of energy and always ready to help her friends and family. She re-started her education after enrolling for a scholastic training course offered at the Project Lehar Laksh center where she is diligently preparing for her Class 10 exams. Jyothi aspires to become a teacher so that she can help other students get an education.

A Different Option

Before attending Project Lehar’s Laksh center, life was quite different for Jyothi Kumari. After dropping out of school, the 15 year old says “I used to constantly laugh at everything and argue a lot. I wasn’t in school and was just helping out at home, looking after my siblings and waiting for my marriage to be arranged.”

One day a community mobilizer from AKF arrived at Jyothi’s doorstep to inform her family that a nearby center run by AKF was offering scholastic training for girls who had dropped out of school. Excited by the prospect of meeting and learning alongside other girls her age, Jyothi was keen to attend the center. Since the training was nearby, and only for half a day, her father and mother, both of whom are manual laborers, agreed that Jyothi could go as she would be able to continue her household responsibilities for the rest of the day.

Meaningful Change

Jyothi has been attending the center for the past year and a half and is now preparing for the Class 10 exams. Since attending the center, her family and friends have noticed Jyothi’s dedication to her studies, managing them alongside her daily household chores, as well as how much she has matured since attending the center.

Though Jyothi is well known for her bubbly and warm-hearted personality, she often used to disrupt class by laughing and talking during lessons. However, through the life skills training Jyothi says, “I learnt how to behave properly in different settings and my teacher really helped me to improve my habits and be less argumentative.”

Jyothi’s time at the center has also directly helped her family. She tells us about the time she helped her family by writing guests’ names for her sister’s wedding cards, a skill she improved upon at the center and which was really useful for her family since no one else apart from her father knows how to write. These experiences have shown Jyothi and her family the benefits of education, encouraging them to support Jyothi in her academic pursuits even after she finishes the scholastic training at the center.

Imagining a New Future

At the center, Jyothi has also built strong bonds with other girls: “We all live like sisters. If I eat from one plate, then I feed my best friend, Najiya Rani, from the same plate. Here, we do not see different castes or divisions.” Jyothi’s teacher says that she has been touched by the compassion the girls have shown to one another and how when Project Lehar organised a girl’s festival earlier in the year, Jyothi helped her differently abled friend, Najiya Rani, see the fair by carrying her on her back.

In the past two years, Jyothi’s plans for the future have changed and she now hopes to become a teacher. “I am going to serve my country by becoming a teacher and educating children,” she says. When girls like Jyothi are empowered, they become positive change agents in their own communities, inspiring others and championing the cause of education.