A Literacy Movement - Change is happening...
Trevor Miranda SJ (Bombay)
It all began with an idea, a dream. It was born out of an experience of close encounter with the poor tribals during my regency. I was in a far away rural area 100 kms from Nashik. At that time it was still very primitive. We did not even have toilets!
What struck me was that while I was looking after hundred boys in the boarding, there were still hundreds of children out of school and just wandering in the jungles (forests).
That experience had a lasting impression on me. I made resolution then that I would dedicate my life to the education of underprivileged children. For the last 18 years years of my 28 years as a priest I have been doing that (10 years was as Province Procurator!!).
In fact, I started REAP (Rural Education Action Programme) during my second year of regency, in 1981 as a programme to support tribal children in their education. After ordination is was assigned to the Procurator's office. Being in the city, in 1987, I expanded its scope to include street children. Its first literacy centre was at St. Xavier's Boys Academy, Churchgate, Mumbai. It began with a motley group of 6 shoeshine boys from around Churchgate station and Azad Maidan. In 1990 it grew to 15 centres in and around Andheri highway and Marol pipelines. The name was also changed from 'rural' to 'Reach Education Action Programme'. This is more like a mission statement; it says what it is meant to do: to reach education to the most marginalized and this must result in action for social change.
REAP is guided by three mantras: 'every child in school; no child working; and every child learning well'.
After moving out of the procurators office in 1998, I launched a full scale campaign for eradication of illiteracy covering the length and breadth of Mumbai city and surrounding rural areas literally taking literacy to the doorstep of the poor. REAP's motto, 'no child left behind' and its philosophy 'where the poor are there we should be' is the inspiration behind this expansion. At that time I was like a man on fire wanting to reach education to every child!
We set for ourselves a task of social transformation through 4 E's - Education, Entitlement (human rights), Employment and Empowerment (of women).
From a modest beginning of 15 literacy centres in 1998, REAP made giant strides and within a short period expanded its network to over 450 centres by 2005 covering annually more than 10,000 learners. These included children on the street, slums, rag-pickers, child labourers and tribal children. At that time I considered my role as looking for 'lost sheep', those beyond the periphery of education, the marginalised and the 'socially outcast'. I was very clear that this would be a 'campaign for eradication of illiteracy', not a school system. Yet at the same time I wanted it to be a mass movement reaching where no one else had dared to go. We set up a large network of preschool and Supplementary and network closely with the government schools in rural areas to enhance quality education.
From my experience, once you set out on a path of social reconstruction, things move fast and new challenges come up. Seeing the lack of education among tribal girls in rural areas, we decided at the request of the parents to open a boarding. This was opened in 2007 in Dolkhamb, Shahapur Taluka. We began with 25 girls and now have 40. The hidden agenda of course is prevention of early marriage. Over these years several batches of girls have passed the SSC. But for this boarding they would all have been married off. The all-round grooming of the girls is of paramount importance.
As REAP's 'footpath university' began to grow the need for trained teachers also grew. We needed to train grass root teachers from the area itself and so decided to set up our own teacher training centres. From one in 1998 at Santacruz, we soon established three more in Kurla, Kalwa and Kalyan to meet the demand.
This investment in our teachers is really the success behind our literacy movement. It is said, no nation can rise above the quality of its teachers. It has paid us rich dividends.
One thing that was very clear for me from the beginning was that this literacy must result in social transformation. And women are the best to bring about change. Today REAP's 200 plus Self Help Groups support women rights and focuses on developing women to be agents of social change in their communities. From being penniless, women have become managers of money and economically empowered.
But the most important intervention of the women is in their daily problems from garbage clearing, lack of water and toilets, ration etc. From 'rolling pins' to advocacy women, have shown they can be deciders of their destiny and transformers of society.
Over the years REAP has received many awards and recognition but its most cherished one is the $ 1 million 2005 Opus Prize for outstanding humanitarian work given on 7th November, 2005, United States. I was also honored when Marquette University conferred on me an Honorary Doctorate for my contribution to the cause of education for the marginalized.
The seed that was planted years ago has grown into a mighty oak tree giving shelter to so many children and women. Change is happening....