A Self-Made Social Entrepreneur, Ashweetha Shetty’s Life Story Stands As A True Example Of Empowerment
- IWB Post
- September 7, 2019
When it comes to the rural areas of the country, more often than not girls in the villages are bound to the orthodox functioning of the society that does not let them dream and have aspirations. Since the time of their birth, they are considered to be a burden on their family and the only thing that their parents dream of is to get them married and figure out how they would manage to arrange for their dowry.
One such girl who came from a similar background was Ashweetha Shetty, who grew up in a small village in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. Born to an underprivileged family, where her parents earned a living by making beedi rollers (hand-made local cigarettes), Ashweetha felt boxed into the traditional functioning of the society. But at the age of 13, she realized that the power to change her destiny lay in her own hands when she chanced upon the autobiography of Helen Keller that inspired her.
Being good at school, Ashweetha used the power of education to choose a life according to her liking. Though she helped her parents in making beedi rollers, she also paid complete attention to her studies. During her time in college, she started taking tuitions for children that not only satiated her desire to teach, but it also helped her in funding her education. Subsequently, Ashweetha became the first graduate from her family.
In conversation with Ashweetha, we got a glimpse into the life of this inspiring woman. Excerpts:
Tell me about the usual destiny of girls in your village.
While we are growing up, most of us only aspire to get married to a good man because we are brought up in a way where marriage is considered to be the best thing that can happen to a girl. When you grow up in a situation like this, you are conditioned in a way that doesn’t let you aspire to have a career or explore other things in life, unlike men.
To be honest, when it comes to girls there is actually no expectation from parents in our village that girls should be educated or should aspire to work and build their careers. But when it comes to boys, they are expected to work hard because they have to take care of the family.
But having said that, even if at all there is some support from the family that allows girls to have access to education and further take up a job, then also there are restrictions. They can only take up jobs which are available in the village centre, where they work as beedi rollers, take up stitching work at home or work in local mills. So overall, if you see, having girls take up roles which are outside the social norms is not really welcomed, and the jobs which they can take in the village itself are not well paid.
So how was it for you, being a girl with a head full of dreams and ambitions, to break through the conventional mindsets?
To be honest, I did not grow up with many dreams, thinking that I’ll do something in my life. I was also like other girls in our village who were conditioned to not aspire for big things in life. Even if I wanted to explore many things, I knew it would not be possible for me to do that because that’s not how things worked in our village.
However, education played an important role in my life. When I started reading books, I realised that there was a world outside. I read about Hellen Keller, Irom Sharmila, and Barkha Dutt, and I was completely fascinated by the thought that a normal woman can accomplish so much. Being inspired by them, I thought maybe I should try to get out of my village and explore what it means to have freedom. And that’s how I realised that I wanted to pursue my dreams and stand on my own feet.
After my graduation when I got through the Young India Fellowship, I had to shift to Delhi. But my family and relatives thought that going to Delhi for a girl would not be good. Mindsets were such that they thought if I became too educated I would turn out to be arrogant and that is really not acceptable from a woman. My parents also wanted me to get married, but I refused. Though they supported that decision, people related to us till date think that because I’m educated I think very highly of myself and the entire blame goes on me being educated. So the conventional thinking that a girl should not go out to study because they will get spoilt didn’t make it easy for me to shift to Delhi. Also, as my parents are not educated, it was very difficult for them to let me go to another city to pursue my further studies; however I would say that my mother is very progressive and she was the one who supported me.
Coming from a family which was struggling to make ends meet, how did you manage to fund your education?
So my father and mother were beedi rollers, and while I was growing up with my brother and sister, we all had to work together to make ends meet. However, later when I went to college I started taking tuitions because I couldn’t expect my parents to help me with my daily expenditure. Initially, I didn’t charge anything from my students because it didn’t feel right to me, but after a point, their parents only started paying me through which I earned a decent amount that helped me fund my education.
With all the books that she had read, Ashweetha was always fascinated to explore the world outside her village. As luck had it, she stumbled upon an article in a Tamil magazine where she read about the Young India Fellowship, which she went on to pursue.
Post the Fellowship, Ashweetha worked as a Community Engagement Manager at Sughavazhvu Healthcare, but despite these accomplishments, she felt something was amiss. She constantly questioned herself regarding what she was doing with the education that she had struggled so hard to get and how she could make a difference in the lives of people in rural areas. That’s when she decided to go back to her roots and founded the Bodhi Tree Foundation, which aims at empowering rural graduates, by imparting soft-skills training and exposure to opportunities.
So from fighting conventional mindsets to now being an influencer as a TEDx speaker, have you always been a great influence to people around you?
I don’t think I’ve been a good influencer for them at all because I have actually been told that I’m a bad company to be in. Parents of my friends didn’t like the fact that I would not conform to conventional norms that are expected out of a girl. They would say, that this girl is unusually bold because I would go out and do things. For example, even if some purchases are to be done, women in our village would send the male members of the family to go out and do these things, but I never saw any job to be only suitable for a man. Being an independent woman is not considered good in our village, and hence I was considered to be quite different from other girls and not a good influence.
Coming to the work that your foundation is doing, to help first-generation college students explore their potential through education, skill programmes, and other opportunities, tell me how does the foundation reach out to the rural community?
So, Bodhi Tree Foundation was founded in 2014 with the need to produce young rural leaders and to bridge the rural-urban divide. We work with first-generation college goers who are not only the first ones to be joining colleges from their villages, but also from their families. The foundation majorly works with girls who are in the age group of 17-23, and it helps the students with learning life skills, focuses on their self-development and provides them exposure to different opportunities. We believe that once students start questioning what they want to do in life, they begin to explore their passion and start investing in their skills. And so, we aim to guide them through this by reaching out to them through different mediums.
We have tied up with colleges that cater to rural students and we also have village centres where we take sessions on English language and life skills. Apart from this, we have residential programs for girls at our foundation, which are conducted for them so that they can explore what they want to do in life. Through different mediums such as theatre, drama, poetry, etc. we introduce them to different fields.
We also believe that this is an age group where children actually form their value system, and so we aim to help them decide what they actually want to do in their life, and what kind of human being they want to be.
We take sessions which are activity-based on goal setting, creative thinking, on how women of the current generation should be, and the importance of teamwork, to name a few. And all these things help them question things that are happening around them and also their conditioning which comes in their way of realizing their potential and achieving their dreams. We also educate girls about the importance of equality, so that it changes their perspectives towards their conditioning which in turn helps them to raise good children in the future.
Is your foundation also helping the students in career counseling?
Yes, to an extent. As of now, we expose them to different opportunities like fellowship programmes, scholarships, government, and private jobs. And we are in the process of publishing a book for our children with a list of career options.
In your opinion, how do you think we can bridge the gaps that exist in urban and rural education?
I do believe that there are gaps that exist between the rural and urban areas in terms of exposure and access to resources, but I don’t feel that it exists in terms of education. Our education system is based on rote learning. And I have observed that this system just doesn’t allow the children to think. I grew up in a similar education system where the culture of questioning things was not appreciated.
I feel it is very important for teachers to make children question everything because that’s how a person actually grows. And I also feel that as educators, one of the biggest services to our children is to allow them to question things and be comfortable in not knowing them. A lot of times, teachers get threatened or their ego comes in their way which doesn’t provide children with the answers that they wish to seek, and that is exactly what we need to change. You can always get back to them with answers, but it is important to realise that their growth will only happen when we let their minds challenge things.
But having said that, there is a difference in the education system between urban and rural areas in terms of exposure. My teachers in rural India didn’t know many things, because they were not a part of the education system that made them aware of things which were happening out there in the world. But when I shifted to Delhi, it was such an eye-opener for me when I saw students from all over the country coming from good schools.
Students from urban areas are so much more aware, confident, and creative and have such an advanced thinking process. Coming from a rural background, it took me a lot of time to even put my hand up and say something in the classroom. But with the kind of exposure that the urban children have because of the extracurricular activities they take part in, they turn out to be so much more aware and confident. However, I still believe that even in urban areas we are still not there in terms of the education system that allows a child to question and expand their horizon. To address this issue, we really need good teachers.
At our foundation, we are trying to improve this by actually making our students question things so that they are able to bring about a change and grow as a person.
Turning back in time, what would be that one advice that you would like to give to your 13-year-old self?
I think I would tell myself to be courageous and work towards my goals. We are so conditioned to be fearful of things that we don’t even try to take a step which can actually help us reach a better place. One has to be confident and courageous in life so that he/she is able to achieve their dreams. For me, even today and to my 13-year-old self, I would say it is important to take small steps and be in control of your life.
In every space of life, girls are conditioned in ways that holds them in a position which restricts them in expressing themselves and standing for their choices. In the name of respect, they don’t come out with what they feel and don’t question as to why certain things are happening only with them. Hence, girls need to break through the shackles of conventional thinking and they should consciously question things so that they are able to live their dreams.