Children from disadvantaged families gather for academic tutoring at the Gurukel, an after-school center in Ghughumari, India. Experts say these sorts of programs can help supplement the government's efforts for universal and high-quality education, especially after COVID-19 interruptions. Courtesy of Sumi Das and Moitrisanjog
February 14, 2023
Arbina Khatun makes about $3 a day working at a small convenience store with her husband in the West Bengal village of Ghughumari.
She knows her 6-year-old son, Shyan Mia, could benefit from a private tutor, but at $12 to $25 a month, the family could never afford it. “I do not have any income apart from what we earn from the shop,” she says. “We use that to feed ourselves.”
So instead she sends him to a nearby learning center founded by transgender rights activist Sumi Das and referred to as the Gurukul.
Ms. Das founded the center in 2020 when schools closed during COVID-19 lockdowns. Shyan is one of 24 children from underprivileged families who come to this unique facility for meals, tutoring, and extracurricular activities. Ms. Khatun says the center also gave her son warm sweaters and socks during winter.
After-school programs like the Gurukul can fill gaps in public education and help children better engage with school, education policy experts say. For the center’s trans volunteers and staff, working with children can be a much-needed reprieve from the stigma they experience in mainstream society.
Ms. Das hopes the learning center can foster mutual compassion between trans people and other vulnerable communities in her area.
“When we just work within the community for ourselves, that won’t lead to any change. If we work with and for the whole society, the actual change will come,” she says.
Building the Gurukul
Ms. Das has lived and worked in this region of eastern India for over a decade. She left home at age 14 and moved to a nearby railroad junction. “At that time, I started doing sex work for just 15 rupees [less than $1] to get food to eat,” says Ms. Das.
Gradually, she got involved with the local hijra community – one of many trans, intersex, and gender-diverse communities with distinct family structures and customs in India – and with HIV/AIDS and human rights activism.
Anmol AroraSumi Das helped establish an after-school center in Ghughumari, India, where children from disadvantaged families gather for academic tutoring, as well as meals and warm clothes. She hopes the initiative will help build solidarity between the local trans community and other marginalized groups.
In 2009, she founded the Moitrisanjog Society, a rural collective of trans and gender-nonconforming people who support each other and advocate for employment and health care access. The Gurukul became an offshoot of this effort, and was designed as a way to branch out and build solidarity with other marginalized groups during the pandemic.
“We wondered what work we can do with and for the ‘mainstream’ community,” says Ms. Das. “That is how we came up with this center.”
Some parents were reluctant to send their kids to the facility, which is set up on the first floor of Ms. Das’ residence, saying, “If my child studies at a hijra household, they will also become a hijra,” recalls Ms. Das. But others saw value.
The current students have been hand-picked based on family need. Several are children of migrant and daily wage workers, and another has a mother dealing with mental health challenges. Despite hardships, these parents had a safe place to send their kids during lockdowns.
Now that public schools have reopened, the Gurukul has shifted to after-school programming. Children arrive by 3 p.m. for additional lessons in core subjects such as Bengali, math, and science, as well as training in dance, yoga, and art. At 7 p.m., they have dinner before returning home.
In a country where public schools struggle with overcrowding and fail to offer much in the way of extracurricular enrichment, it’s a level of education that can be tough to come by.
India promises free and compulsory elementary education, but in many areas, schools fall short of government standards. For instance, the Right to Education Act mandates a ratio of 1 teacher to 30 students in lower primary classes, yet the teacher-pupil ratio in government-aided schools in West Bengal is 1-to-73.
“The kids do not get the same attention in school,” says Shamima Hasan, who has a master’s degree in English and is one of three teachers offering daily academic tutoring at the Gurukul. “They are able to focus on their studies here.”
Sudipta Bagchi, a dance instructor who volunteers at the learning center at least twice a month, agrees that it offers families unique opportunities.
Anmol AroraSumi Das houses the Moitrisanjog Society’s learning facility in her own residence in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, India. Some parents were reluctant to send their kids to the facility, saying “If my child studies at a hijra household, they will also become a hijra,” she recalls.
“The kids in the village here are strangers to many things. So they have that excitement [for the class],” says Ms. Bagchi, adding that the children are always enthusiastic and cooperative during dance lessons, despite her classes being somewhat sporadic.
Parul Sharma, education specialist at UNICEF Jharkhand, says that nongovernmental organization-run education initiatives such as the Moitrisanjog Gurukul can help supplement the government’s efforts for universal and high-quality education, especially after COVID-19 interruptions.
These programs’ importance “is getting amplified as many children need to be reconnected with learning and need additional psychosocial support,” she says.
But Ms. Sharma adds that after-school programs are only stopgap measures, and what happens during the six to eight hours of classroom time is more critical to children’s development. The best outcome, she says, would be to integrate these initiatives into the larger education system and adopt some of their best practices, in part because the mainstream school system can reach a much larger population.
The program’s reach is a concern for Ms. Das and her team as well. They want to expand the facility but face funding issues. Current donations don’t cover the $220 per month needed to pay for program essentials, including meals and teacher honorariums, but Ms. Das is committed to keeping the initiative afloat.
To her, it’s not just about giving vulnerable children a fighting chance, but also about introducing the next generation of youth to trans people and planting seeds of compassion.
Envisioning a kinder future
In India and elsewhere, young trans people report significant levels of bullying and harassment in school, leading many to drop out. With about half the workers at the Gurukul being trans, Ms. Das hopes students will remember how their caretakers made them feel loved and respected – and that they’ll treat their trans peers the same.
In the meantime, the center also serves as a sort of haven for Ms. Das and other trans people involved in the project.
“I feel lonely day and night,” says Iswar Chanda, who helps with the facility’s administration. “Everyone says I am a man, and I don’t have the right to motherhood. But I know I can be a mother.”
Between errands, Ms. Chanda takes every opportunity to shower students with love. She says even brief moments of connection help satisfy that maternal instinct.
Subho Das (no relation to Sumi Das) also loves caring for the children. Working as the Gurukul’s cook provides the teenager a reprieve from her home environment, where she faces hostility due to her gender identity, particularly from her elder brother.
“He rebukes me for dressing and being the way I am,” she says. “I don’t know what to do. My sense of self is not the same as that of men; it is like that of a woman. I can’t do anything about it.”
The kids, on the other hand, affirm her identity. They compliment her dancing when she drops in on dance classes. She playfully admonishes them when they run around during dinnertime, but once they settle down, they’re always appreciative of her cooking.
“I wake up in the morning, [and] I wait for them to come,” says Subho Das. “I keep on thinking about how I can spend time with them.”