COVER STORY

A THIRSTY NATION

Image courtesy:  FOREFRONT

Image courtesy: FOREFRONT

By SHAGORIKA EASWAR

Someone once asked Mark Twain, “What, sir, would the people of the earth be without women?” The author famously responded: “They would be scarce, sir, almighty scarce.”

And yet, women the world over struggle for basic rights such as education and sanitation facilities. Matthew Oh’s organization is helping bring about positive change in villages in south India.

Growing up, Matthew Oh heard of individuals who had left everything to serve people in developing countries. 

He used to think fulfillment was to be found in self-advancement, but saw how these individuals found satisfaction and joy in serving others. It made him begin to think how, instead of climbing up the corporate ladder, he could use his skills to help others. In 2012, he travelled to India for the first time and saw first-hand the need for accessible, clean water. 

Children and women would walk up to six one-hour trips to get water and the water they did obtain is the cause of diarrhoea-related deaths of almost one million children in India each year,” he says.

This prevented children from attending school. Oh also became aware of how education is considered a luxury and unaffordable and realized development requires more than one solution. 

“As an engineer by trade and having worked in the research and development sector, I wanted to be different, to bring new creative ideas to help others. 

“In India I’ve met and worked with people like Sunny. The energy he expended to bring about positive change in his village impacted me so much that I went back year after year. I sought to learn more about development issues in South India and how best to channel the potential for change in the community. Then, as Sunny and I shared our vision and our heart for the local communities, we worked together to create Forefront in 2015. Through a holistic four-phase approach, Forefront engages in long-term partnerships with communities to advance our mission to enable every person, equip leaders, and establish self-sustaining communities.”

Their primary focus is in helping women through education and providing clean water and Oh shares why these areas speak to him in particular. 

“We focus primarily on clean water and education because we believe that having both will build sustainable futures for women in Kolluru. Before we started our clean water and education initiatives, we held community forums in Kolluru villages. From these forums, we learned that women and children spend up to 6-10 hours a day carrying water as the nearest water well is a one-hour walk, round trip, away. We started off by building water wells in each village centre, so that a trip to the water well would be no more than a five-minute walk. Women and children now have the time to pursue education. 

“And education has a lasting impact in breaking cycles of poverty, because with an excellent education, the children of our school can choose high-skilled careers and lead their community to a sustainable future.

“We have consulted highly effective educators and leading education researchers who have recommended several innovations, all which have empirical evidence of learning to higher achievement. Our innovations support higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, critique and  synthesis. Teachers and parents work together to ensure that students at the primary level develop rigorous critical thinking skills, core values and acquire enduring understandings on how to exercise appropriate self-care. Our innovations are aimed at increasing student content knowledge, interdisciplinary connections and real-world applications. 

“For example, we plan to use blended learning. In blended learning, students shift to online learning for a portion of the school day. Blended learning helps students become more productive during independent practice time. Students will use Chromebooks with pre-downloaded applications that teach math, English, science, and technology skills. These applications assess students in real-time so that students learn content and practise with material catered to their level of understanding.”

Education is a sustainable solution to breaking cycles of poverty, reiterates Oh. “For women, education gives them the knowledge and freedom to makes their own decisions in a culture where their opinions are often considered of less value than those of men. Women with education know how to care for their physical and emotional well being. Women with education are happier and healthier. UNICEF found that an educated woman has the skills, information and self-confidence that she needs to be a better parent, worker and citizen. An educated woman is, for example, likely to marry at a later age and have fewer children. Cross-country studies show that an extra year of schooling for girls reduces fertility rates by 5 to 10 per cent. And the children of an educated mother are more likely to survive. In India, for example, the infant mortality rate of babies whose mothers have received primary education is half that of children whose mothers are illiterate. An educated woman will also be more productive at work — and better paid. Indeed, the dividend for educational investment is often higher for women than men. Studies from a number of countries suggest that an extra year of schooling will increase a woman’s future earnings by about 15 per cent, compared with 11 per cent for a man. 

 “Our school caters to the needs and culture of the local area through affordable tuition, staff care, rigorous academics and community engagement. Tuition is income-based for all, and half-priced for girls. Staff are paid competitive salary that includes spacious housing and professional development. Teachers will be trained to teach students the ICSE curriculum, technology enhanced learning through student laptops, character training, fine arts, sports, health, and ecosystem education. We will serve and engage with the community using our school campus through adult education  programs, on-campus water well and a community centre and garden. 

“Through this school venue, we hope to also spread awareness in the community about the importance of hand sanitation.”

Forefront works through local partnerships, alongside local leaders and citizens to realize positive change in the community. 

“Seeing the impact of our work, many individuals approach us and offer to serve alongside us. Sunny has developed relationships with key influencers and decision-makers in the area including many towns people and government officials. In addition to Sunny, we have four individuals on the Forefront team in India for our water initiatives, two individuals for our soap initiative, and three individuals for our school initiative.”

In a climate of some pushback against foreign NGOs in India, Forefront ensures that it is following government protocol and is registered locally. Oh says they are very grateful for the support they have received from the government of Andhra Pradesh. 

He describes the strategies they use in India as culturally responsive.  

“Before enacting any project, we seek to evaluate and assess the needs of a village by interviewing and engaging locals as well as experts on the issue in the area. Practically, we hold community forums with the local villagers to see what needs they have and how we can best serve them. From that, we tailor our solutions to ensure that their culture is incorporated in addition to new ideas and innovations to best meet the needs. Secondly, our local teams live in the community and speak Telugu, the local language. We rely on them significantly to tailor and mould our projects to be more locally responsive and pertinent. They also serve as the face of Forefront in most local interactions. They identify and develop relationships with local village leaders and local contractors and vendors. All our work is ultimately executed by local staff or partners ensuring that locals take ownership of the projects. 

“After our community forums and interviews with local villagers, we found out about the lack of girls’ education. We heard stories of how boys are given priority in the household when it comes to education and also the lack of sanitary facilities for girls. We also met girls like 16-year old Priyanka who dreams of being a political leader. However, due to the challenging realities of her community such as access to clean water and sanitation, she faces barriers to reaching her goal.  Through our four-phase approach, we believe that we can equip girls like Priyanka in all ways to be effective leaders in their communities. 

“We have sanitary facilities in our school and also provide 50 per cent off tuition for girls to encourage them to attend school continuously, helping them achieve their dreams.”

Forefront is funded by generous private donors including philanthropic foundations and individuals. Funds are raised through events, commerce, corporate outreach and college chapters. 

“We believe in the power of the individual to bring about change,” says Oh. “That includes the power of each donor, no matter how big or small the contribution, because 100 per cent goes straight to the cause. It comes as a surprise how much impact even small amounts can have. Every contribution – whether it’s awareness-raising or financial – can accomplish a lot. So I encourage everyone to challenge themselves and take action. Giving is always much better than receiving! Start a campaign. Be creative, have fun, and involve your friends! You can also donate to a specific cause depending on your passion, help fund a water well or provide a child’s monthly tuition. You have a powerful voice and the world wants to hear it. Speak on behalf of our cause and spread the news about the exciting and inspiring lives we are all changing together!”

All public donations go straight to the cause 100 per cent and to the cause that the donor is most passionate about, says Oh, addressing the issue of donor fatigue. “Our operating costs are funded by donors who believe in our cause and fund our operations.”  

Forefront has built 15 water wells to-date providing over 45,000 villagers access to drinking water. In addition, it has provided over 2,000 soaps for children and adults, improving hand washing.

Looking ahead, Oh says they are actively working on their third pillar – medical – and on growing their other pillars. 

“We are very excited to implement a clinic that provides affordable medical care to all demographics based on medical need. This will keep community members active allowing them to work and go to school. 

“When I visit our partner communities, it is amazing to hear the amount of energy and passion they have to change their community,” says Oh. “There is so much potential! We hear stories of women who want to provide sanitary pads for other women because currently they use cloth, or young girls who want to be police officers, and the list goes on. The power is in the locals and Forefront’s goal is to unlock their potential because change happens through powerful local individuals. The stories we have heard directly from the locals are inspiring and keep us going. They drive our work.

“I believe that we all have a heart to help others and we all have something to contribute. We are all so talented. Imagine, if we all pooled our talents, skills and resources, how much impact that can have. Helping one another also connects us and we can be a more unified world: collaborating and sharing ideas, sparking new innovative ways to help others. 

“I hope to see more people seek opportunities to help others not because it’s the ‘cool thing to do’ but because it’s about changing lives. There is power in people with all different backgrounds coming together for good. We could and would be unstoppable. I find the prospect exciting and I look forward to what is to come.”

For more information about Forefront, visit www.goforefront.org.

Follow Forefront @goforefront on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Urban versus rural, boys versus girls: India’s education divide

The education gap between rural India and the rest of the world. High quality, public primary schools are rare in rural India. Overcrowded and underfunded, schools function more as day care centres with minimal learning. Pratham conducted a survey of 577 randomly selected rural districts in India, with 30 villages surveyed in each district. In their study, they found that 33 per cent of second grade students in rural government schools do not recognize 10 basic Hindi letters. Twenty per cent of second grade students do not recognize the numbers 1 to 9. Only 25 per cent of third grade students are capable of subtraction. 50 per cent of fifth grade students are three grade levels behind in reading. According to the World Bank, the world literacy rate is 86 per cent, while the literacy rate in India is 72 per cent. Secondary school attendance is 76 per cent globally, but only 54 per cent in India.

The education gap between boys and girls in India. Due to a lack of access, affordability, and awareness, children in rural India are often unable to receive the education they require to escape poverty. Unfortunately, this has a disproportionate impact on women and girls, as culturally the education is valued less for women who are expected to focus on raising children. According to the World Bank, female literacy is 83 per cent globally, but only 59 per cent in India, and 32 per cent in the area where Forefront International School was established. Most girls in rural India drop out of school by age 12 due to lack of proper toilet facilities and financial constraints

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