International Leadership Award 2018 – Supporting Girls’ Education for Better Lives and Communities
Education as Opportunity – Empowering Young People in India
Written by Diane Connors, BCCIC Communications Officer
This moment marked a memorable point on a journey that began years ago, thousands of miles away. A young woman in a colourful sari stepped up to the podium at the front of the room and began to speak – “If you would have told me I would be one day standing here in Vancouver accepting an award I would not have believed you” she begins. Madhulatha Ganireddy had accepted the International Leadership Award, given by the BC Council for International Cooperation, for her work with the BC-based organization HUGGS Canada, which supports young women and men to continue higher level education in the city of Vizag, India. The award sponsored her to come to Canada, enabling her to leave her country for the first time to embark on a tour around BC to speak about her work and meet with supporters.
As Madhu (the name Madhulatha goes by casually) began speaking to the audience about the students she works with, she gave some insight to their lives and stories. Many of the young people, who were smiling on the screen, had aspirations of obtaining higher education so they could have good jobs to support themselves and their families. The stories began with hardship, such as the death of a parent or a serious medical problem in the family that caused them to fight against the pull of poverty. It was heartening to know these stories currently show the young people obtaining meaningful work that improves their society – with the support of a community of tutors and mentors at the HUGGS Study Centre.
Most of the students pictured were young women – a reflection of the idea that empowering women and girls is of utmost importance to uplifting entire communities. One such young woman was Devi, who applied to the HUGGS program and received a home visit to evaluate whether her financial situation would make her a good candidate for a scholarship. When Madhu met Devi’s parents, they asked whether their son wouldn’t be a preferred candidate for the program.
Madhu explained to the parents that boys generally have more opportunities in life – the son would likely be given more chances for education and jobs, and would be the beneficiary of any sacrifice by the parents. Whereas Devi, if she didn’t get this scholarship, may not be given another opportunity to better herself. Further, with an education and good job Devi can look forward to having a more prosperous family of her own and will place higher value on education for her own children, inciting a positive ripple effect down the generations. Devi’s mother understood this – she was illiterate and depended on her husband economically – she was determined that her daughter get this opportunity. Devi is a current student at HUGGS and is doing well.
Though most of the students at HUGGS are young women, the organization does accept young men as well. Madhu asserts that this is important, as though it is true that girls have the deficit of opportunities in comparison, there are many boys and young men who would also have no chance of a better education and life without some help. She also explains that having young men in the program creates positive impacts in the community, as they are surrounded by women and learn to respect their female peers and tutors. Their behaviour and attitudes towards women influence their own families and peers outside of the program, socially elevating values that improve gender equality.
Madhu smiled as she announced at the HUGGS 15th anniversary dinner that the organization had enrolled its 100th student, and the audience broke out in applause. The organization had started with 1 student and 1 supporter – the result of a relationship many years ago, when a Canadian woman named Lisa Heel gathered together financial support for a young woman named Viveka to finish high school and become a nurse. Since then, HUGGS has seen incredible growth in the program and in the number of students helped. Investments include a new computer lab, dedicated tutors (many of whom went through the HUGGS program, themselves), and support for healthy eating and medical needs. Side programs such as a mothers’ support group and events for alumni are organized to foster a sense of personal connection.
“Helping students improve both intellectually and emotionally builds a good community” Madhu says, when asked about her values in the work she does. She explains that she understands the challenges her students face first-hand – her father died when she was a teenager, and she worked to support her 4 siblings. Madhu later accomplished higher education with the support of her husband and encouragement of her grandmother; she took online courses and obtained a Masters of Social Work with a practicum working with underprivileged families. When HUGGS Board Member Marilyn Gullison introduced Madhu at the dinner, she described the last line of the job description that Madhu now fills: “Most of all, she must be able to communicate with young people who come from an underprivileged background, and she has to really care about them.” Madhu cares deeply for the students that she sees herself in, and together they lift each other up, continuing the ripple for generations to come.
HUGGS Canada is a BCCIC Member that provides underprivileged students in India with the opportunity to further their education, enabling them to contribute more effectively to their families and communities. HUGGS Canada’s program lead, Madhulatha Ganireddy, is the recipient of BCCIC’s 2018 International Leadership Award, which recognizes exceptional contributions to international cooperation, exhibiting leadership and strong development effectiveness strategies.