Day 95: Gender and ASER: A Two-Part Reflection on Women’s Participation in the ASER Survey

An Educated Mother

Every once in a while, ASER volunteers encounter a child who is a tad fearful of testing.  That child hears the word “test,” and they quickly run off in the opposite direction to hide behind a grandmother, wall, bicycle, or goat—pretty much whatever might shield her or him from the impending assessment.
Recently, we had the opportunity to observe one such incident in a Rajasthan village.  In this particular household, a young mother was very keen on being surveyed and enthusiastic about the prospect of her little son being tested in reading and math.  Her curiosity regarding the ASER test was palpable. As her boy timidly scurried off toward the yard’s end to hide, we watched as his mother (with his younger brother on her hip) determinedly pulled the reluctant boy toward the ASER volunteer.  The volunteer sat patiently with the test under a shade tree, waiting and watching the interaction between mother and son.  The boy was whimpering and dragging his heels and twisting his arm, but everyone could see that his mother was lovingly committed.
In the end, the volunteer did a commendable job at coaxing the reluctant child into testing by hugging him to her side and talking to him encouragingly.  Some volunteers have this visible gift with children, and her finesse in building rapport with this child was indispensable.  After the child finally attempted the first question, the volunteer sweetly praised him, commenting he was a “smart boy.”  The boy’s resistance to reading Hindi sentences melted away.
This ASER story could easily be about the child who did not want to give a test but eventually, succeeded in demonstrating his abilities.
Or, it could be an ASER story about the deftness of the young volunteer, who was a pre-service teacher in a local District Institute for Education and Training (DIET). In that particular household, the volunteer demonstrated to herself and others that she would one day be a teacher who children trusted.
Yet, for us, this story was largely about the young mother, holding a toddler in her arms and hovering over her child while he participated in the entire testing process.  From a short distance, the mother studied the questions he was asked by the volunteer; she mouthed answers to herself while he pensively scribbled numbers on a paper; and, she even made a few small peeps in exasperation as her son made a tiny mistake on a double-digit subtraction problem.  Undoubtedly, she wanted her child tested and wanted him to do well.  Yet, as we were watching her it dawned on us, this mother has an education.  As her son sat reading a short story and identifying two-digit numbers, she was also silently checking her own knowledge.  She was testing herself!  In a village where many of the mothers had not gone to school, she reported to the other volunteer that she had finished Standard 5.  Whether or not the mother found herself using subtraction or long division in her everyday life, she demonstrably remembered how to do those math computations and was monitoring if her son knew how to do them too.  
As a volunteer collecting data, such parents are a dilemma:  On one hand, you welcome all their enthusiasm and interest in the testing of their children.  On the other hand, for data reliability reasons, you have to do everything possible to prevent them from coaching their children through the test and giving the child hints through eye rolling, coughs or loving nudges!  Nevertheless, on that day, and despite having to plead our case to her for no intervention during her son’s test, this mother warmed our hearts.   While most other mothers in this village continued their housework and kept a distance from their testing children, she was noticeably different.  She was unique in her confidence in interacting with us, in her overall interest in the survey, and in her monitoring of her son’s testing.  It led us to wonder… What is the influence of an educated mother?
In Rajasthan, there is still a sizeable disparity between the education levels of men and women.  The 2011 Government of India Census revealed that it is the state with the highest literacy disparity between the sexes.  While this story about education, gender and the ASER survey could end here in this one village in Rajasthan, it is worth exploring how surveying in this Rajasthan district spoke to the issue of gender in numerous ways.

Two Fearless Master Trainers- ASER’s Foot Soldiers

On a sticky September afternoon, we interacted with two young ASER master trainers for one district in Rajasthan. Master trainers (MTs) work at least 8-10 hours for approximately two months during the survey period and hold responsibility for one entire district in their state. They are responsible for implementing the survey from training volunteers to conducting the survey to ensuring that the survey is of high quality through monitoring and recheck. When we met, these master trainers were all charged up for the Herculean task of executing ASER and spoke to us with great confidence and pride, revealing that they were the only two women master trainers who did not back out from the programme. While some of their peers were frightened by the traveling and independence required of MTs, these two young women wanted to be part of a rural development movement. Their eyes glistened when they narrated their field stories: walking long distances on hot sunny days and putting up with the occasional random man’s comments and banter while they travelled alone.  The MTs articulated that they proved to themselves, their families, and peers that fieldwork in Rajasthan can be done by women too. Their words that afternoon shed light on the continuing biases against women and the many barriers that they can face in pursuing their ambitions.

For numerous students in India, education traps them into careers they may not be interested in and directs the route they travel through life. These girls were unique: they were immensely focused, intelligent, and determined to be engaged in activities that stimulated their mind and offered them a meaningful vocation (even outside their Masters field).  As they described the reactions of their peers to their participation in ASER, it was clear that many young women in their university and neighbourhood lacked their bold and aspiring attitude. For these MBA graduates, there was much more to achieving personal well being than pursuing wealth or comfort. They expressed that one of their main motivations for participating in social mobilisations efforts like ASER was to demonstrate that they are created equal, they are capable, and they too can make a difference. ASER provides an opportunity to determined, passionate, courageous young citizens to be involved in their society: it is amazing the kind of effect it has on their personal lives after a short (yet intense) two month stint.

Their story is just one of the thousand MT stories in the country. ASER’s impact on the very people who help to make it possible is underestimated by many.  Yet, we noticed that these female MTs wore their growing confidence like a crown.  Fear of big challenges does not render them sleepless anymore: One of the master trainers told us, “I can face challenges and have learnt to stick through and not run away from them. I am confident that I can achieve anything from now.”  This opportunity to participate in ASER resulted in these young women developing stronger voices. How many more are like them? It is worth exploring the links between providing ASER-like opportunities to women and outcomes for social empowerment, especially in states with historically high gender disparities, like Rajasthan. Over the past 10 years now, approximately 1,000 master trainers and 25,000 volunteers each year participate in the survey for a period of one to two months. Providing opportunities like these are not just decisions that influence the day-to-day lives of these master trainers and volunteers. This one story of two master trainers indicates that ASER can contribute to lifelong skills, improve participants’ future livelihoods, and turn people into champions of education within their families and communities. Given that ASER has been engaging with citizens–young and old, male and female–since 2005, there could be roughly 260,000 stories like this one. 
By Remy Hans and Melissa Goodnight
All views expressed in this post are the author’s personal views