'Knowledge is power,' says Nilofer, 'and power is freedom'

Writer: Grieteke Meerman

Nilofer wants to convince parents in poor families in India of the power of education for girls. As a youth advocate, she is in a growing network of girls who are determined to improve the position of young women by combatting child marriage and child trafficking, and making education more accessible for girls and young women.

You don’t need an interpreter to converse with 19-year-old university student, Nilofer; she speaks perfect English. “I’ve had a good education, mostly in English, which has fascinated me from an early age. It’s a lovely language, one that sounds much better than my native Urdu,” she says, flanked by her two sisters, brother, uncle, father and grandfather in their modest apartment in the centre of the Indian city of Hyderabad. Her mother, however, is reluctant to come out of the kitchen. “Too shy,” her father says.

Knowledge lets you do what you want

When quizzed as to why she feels that other girls also deserve a good education, she explains that problems like child marriage, child trafficking, child labour and violence against girls and young women are all linked to a lack of education. “I’m convinced that sending children to school will help eradicate these issues,” she says. “Knowledge is power. And power is freedom. If you have knowledge, you can do what you want.”

To help make education more accessible for girls, for many years now Nilofer has given extra lessons, both inside and outside her school, to girls who looked likely to fail their English exams. “These lessons have helped many girls to graduate from school, girls who would otherwise probably not have done so,” she relates with some pride.

The driving force behind Nilofer’s ambition, apparently, is her uncle. He has two sons of his own and he has taken it upon himself to encourage his brother’s three daughters to get themselves a good education. “We are instilling into the girls that it is important that they can take care of themselves later,” he says.

Growing network of girls

Nilofer recently joined a youth lobbying group of the Girls Advocacy Alliance, a collaboration between Plan International Nederland, Terres des Hommes, Defence for Children − ECPAT and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Through lobbying and policy influencing, the Alliance is actively campaigning to improve the (economic) position of girls and young women and against child marriages, child trafficking and violence against girls and young women in 10 countries in Africa and Asia. This youth lobbying plays a key role in realising these objectives.

The main objectives of the youth group in India are to lower the number of child marriages and reduce child trafficking and violence against girls and young women. The solution is seen to be the prevention of economic exclusion by improving girls’ access to education. To this end, the youth advocates go on training courses that teach them how to get the message across to other young people, their parents, religious leaders, local authorities and decision-makers.

Nilofer plans to focus first on her own neighbourhood, a predominantly Muslim community in which most women spend all day keeping their households ticking over. “None of my neighbours have had any education,” she laments. “They spend all day, every day, indoors looking after four or five children, often in just the one room. They have other priorities than saving for school fees. It’s a vicious circle because their next generation will also grow up without an education. I’ll sometimes talk to them on the street and plead with them to send their children to school. But they don’t listen, and their daughters often end up in the hands of traffickers.”

Promoting education door-to-door

To make sure she’ll be able to get more done, Nilofer has her sights set on carving out an influential position for herself later on. Politics perhaps? “No, not really,” she laughs shyly. “I’d like to be a professor of English and biology, a position from which I could really mean something for these children. It’s not my intention to stay in the classroom, during the summer holidays, the Indian government uses teachers to help carry out the census, going from door-to-door counting how many people live in every household. I think I’ll use that opportunity to promote education.”