I have known blogger, editor, and novelist Damyanti Biswas for many years and am happy to have her guest posting today about a woman who inspires her: Anouradha Bakshi.
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On female friendships
The relationships between women have a long and chequered history. On one hand women are often the agents of patriarchy with misogyny so strongly internalised as to seem spontaneous. On the other hand are women who build and support each other, the instinct to empower each other leading to wonderfully nourishing relationships.
I have one such relationship with Anouradha Bakshi who I fondly refer to as my ‘lighthouse.’
Who is Anouradha Bakshi?
Bakshi is the descendant of an indentured labour and a freedom fighter, and the daughter of a senior diplomat. She travelled the world before settling in New Delhi.
A professor in French, an interpreter and a conference organiser, she found her true calling when she set up Project WHY in the year 2000. For nearly two decades, she’s created wonderful spaces for women and children—‘centres’ where they can be empowered and nourished in order to becomes productive citizens—capable of independence in terms of finance, and thought.
It all began with coming across and taking care of a differently-abled teen abandoned on the streets, then rehabilitating him. This incident inspired Bakshi to look at her surroundings with new eyes—with empathy and compassion for the disenfranchised.
Each time she encountered a fellow human being in dire straits and sought to help, she was forced to ask the question, ‘why?’ and this led to the name of the project: Project WHY.
Anouradha Bakshi and the Project WHY journey
Bakshi’s first attempts began with teaching English to the underprivileged. When a few students of a government school were thrown out for their inability to pay the fees, Bakshi took it upon herself to give the education and support they needed.
And thus a very no-frills, but serious non-profit was born. The idea was to find teachers from within the community who could navigate the various caste and creed distinctions and unite them under the umbrella of education and vocational training.
What began as educational support for children went on to also become a source of empowerment for women. Each year, dozens of women learn vocations skills like stitching and beauty parlour training.
In addition, there’s a section for differently-abled children, both boys and girls, who I have seen over the past decade flourish, and become independent men and women. A few of them draw salaries now, and all have been taught vocational and other skills.
The principles of Project WHY: Women at the helm
Each of the five centres in New Delhi follows the same principles:
- Quality education
- Free educational support for government school students
- Extra-curricular activities
- Funded mostly by individuals
There are modules and workshops by volunteers on important topics like the environment, sensitization to gender issues and hygiene. Computer education is an integral part of the curriculum.
Since the teachers are from within the community, any donations towards this uplift the entire community—these teachers go within their neighbourhood and make sure no child is left behind and all have access to a safe environment and education.
Most of the teachers are women, and some have made the incredible journey from being hired help to becoming a teacher.
One of Bakshi’s best students, Rani Bhardwaj, began volunteering at 15, and having earned degrees through the Open University over more than a decade, is now a post graduate and the manager of three centres. Her toddling son is now part of the Project WHY creche.
Other ex-students of Project WHY like Anita have come back to the Project and now help not only with teaching but also, record-keeping. Financial independence has given these women the confidence to make their own life-changing decisions like marriage or further studies.
This kind of quiet empowerment, without any fanfare, lies at the heart of Project WHY. Bakshi believes that empowering women and giving them the means to earn a living is fundamental to positive change in society.
More about Anouradha Bakshi:
Fundraising for Project WHY by adopting teachers
So far, fundraising for the organisation has been done exclusively by Bakshi, and those are pretty big shoes to fill. I first met her on the pages of a Singaporean newspaper—where she was featured for her work with underprivileged kids.
Because of Bakshi’s emphasis on most of the donations going to the beneficiary, there is no fundraising budget, and that often leads the organisation into difficult situations.
Bakshi has liquidated her inheritance to keep the dream of Project WHY alive, but now they’re moving towards more sustainable options like the drive to Adopt-a-Teacher (as little as 145 USD a month can fund a teacher—and a group of donors can get together to donate that) and also developing products that can be sold for revenue which would fund the programs of education and empowerment.
Quiet, small, yet deep-impact efforts like Project WHY have created a microcosm of empowerment and education in the slums of New Delhi. Anouradha Bakshi and her band of fearless, dedicated teachers are an inspiration—more such teams need to swing into action to ensure a world of equal opportunities and justice for both genders.
About today’s writer
Being involved with Project Why for a more than a decade to varied extents, Damyanti Biswas witnessed the growth of Project WHY and the sheer grit and passion of Anouradha Bakshi. Since 2012, she has written a crime novel, You Beneath Your Skin, which has been recently published by Simon & Schuster and turned into an Amazon bestseller.
A lot of the narrative of the novel was shaped at Project WHY, and half of my proceeds will go to them, the other half to Stop Acid Attacks. To her lighthouse, and to Project WHY: may your passion and dreams endure, and may we continue to witness positive change in New Delhi.
#AnouradhaBakshi #India #ProjectWHY #RaniBhardwaj