Life skills to live life on your terms

“I was just about to finish 10th grade, when my father decided to get me married. He didn’t even ask. It is an age old tradition and a girl’s marriage is considered to be the most important thing. My father, too, was adamant. Marriage for me was like going to an unfamiliar house. You go there and take care of the whole family. You do everything according to that family. But who are you?  You forget that, and don’t even think about it. I went on a hunger strike for three days. Finally my father yielded and decided to give me a chance to study further,” recalls Kamla. Now, Kamla has got an officer’s job with a prestigious NGO and earns good money to support her father who had once opposed her further studies. Kamla shares her experience at a International Day of the Girl function organized in Mumbai, by Room to Read. On 11 October, we celebrate UN Girl Child Day across the globe. It was celebrated in Mumbai as well. The joyous occasion may not be joyous for many girls in India… for them every day is a struggle.

It is time to analyze the statistics that paint a very dismal picture of the status of girls’ education in India. Over 30% of girl students drop out of schools by the time they get to class IX and the number rises to 57% in class XI, according to the report — Children in India 2018 — released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. In celebration of the International Day of the Girl, Room to Read and the India Regional Board is hosting a celebration in Mumbai highlighting the phenomenal impact of its program on girls in India and celebrating the empowerment of girls around the world! 

Interestingly, enrolment of girls in classes I to VII is more than that of boys. The report says that the dropout rate among girl students becomes high after class IX. While 97% of the girls secure admission to class V, the number drops to 67% in class IX. In class XI, the number dips further to 41%. National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has come out with a report stating that around 65% girls who do not attend any educational institution are either engaged in household activities, are dependents or are engaged in begging, etc.

Limited educational opportunities for girls and barriers to completing 12 years of education cost countries between $15 trillion and $30 trillion in lost lifetime productivity and earnings, as per the 2018 World Bank report. The report highlighted that globally women with secondary education earn twice.

The Indian government has taken many steps in the past to increase the enrollment of girls in schools and discourage them from dropping out. The scheme ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ is one such initiative. The studies have shown when girls are empowered with life skills and supportive mentors, they not only stay in school longer, but become leaders of their own lives and agents of change. These skills help young women remove barriers, change societal paradigms and spark solutions for gender inequality, poverty, hunger, disease, conflict.

Geetha Murali, CEO Room to Read, narrates her story on the occasion of UN Girl child Day at a function in Mumbai as to how education plays a critical role, “From a young age, I learned education was one of the most important things that could drive your future. My mother was brilliant; she graduated high school at 13, however, her father refused to educate his daughters beyond secondary school. Despite this, in the face of immense pressure, my mother remained adamant that she would not marry. Instead, she became a stenographer, later joining the Indian army to train as a nurse. From there she came to the US on a nursing visa, put herself through school, got a doctorate, became a statistician and joined the pharmaceutical industry.


For years, my mother sent money to her sisters for their education, setting the path for them to pursue impressive careers spanning from medicine to the United Nations. Due to her fortitude, an entire generation of women in my family could break free from societal barriers. That’s the transformative power of education, and that is what drives me”.

Geetha adds, “There are 250 million children without basic skills, 130 million girls not in school. Changing those statistics through our work at Room to Read is my singular aim. The world can’t afford for us to slow down. I see the transformation that is possible through education in every community where we work in India and beyond. Girls like Roshanara, a graduate of Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program in Delhi, who thanks to the life skills she learned through Room to Read’s program and support from her Room to Read mentor, successfully negotiated with her family to continue her education instead of entering into an arranged marriage at 15. She is now a university student pursuing her Bachelor’s degree and working part-time in a doctor’s clinic to support her family”.

Life skills training is a must for many girls to help them to negotiate the bumpy path of life. Although many qualitative studies have established life skills have positive impact on girl’s life, very limited quantitative studies have been done so far for finding correlation between life skills training and its impact. In 2019, independent researchers from American University, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Dartmouth College led a rigorous study in Rajasthan, India to see whether life skills, like perseverance and problem-solving, can be cultivated and how these skills paired with mentorship impact girls’ lives. International education researchers surveyed 2,400 adolescent girls in Rajasthan, India to assess the impact that Room to Read’s life skills curriculum has on girls who are enrolled in Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program compared to students who are not. This rigorous, independent, two-year study shows that, with the support of a mentor and life skills curriculum, girls are staying in school longer and cultivating leadership-oriented skills after just two years. Two years in the Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program resulted in a 25% lower dropout rate. The findings of this independent study is useful for international education practitioners and governments to better understand how life skills can be taught.

Room to Read alumna Kalpana is from Chhattisgarh and she is currently pursuing her Bachelors in Arts from a Government College, Dhamtari. Kalpana’s belief in herself and the life skills education she received from Room to Read have been her lamp-posts in the journey she has undertaken from her being almost on the verge of dropping out of school to now her teaching other children and preparing  them for a better life. In the odds she had in her family – from a critically ill mother, utterly poverty-stricken conditions, huge distances between her house and exam centre and a father for whom her education wasn’t her priority, she has made her way through.

Girls learning life skills and progressing academically can cause a larger ripple effect. Girls in the workforce create stronger economies. When 10% more girls become educated, a country’s GDP increases by 3%. One extra year of education boosts a woman’s wages by 10-20%, resulting in lower poverty rates. Girls who stay in school wait until later to have children and have smaller, healthier families with better-quality lives. Educated women are more likely to educate their children.

Other positive effects of secondary school education for girls include a wide range of social and economic benefits for the girls themselves, their children and their communities. These include near-elimination of child marriage, lowering fertility rates by a third in countries with high population growth, and reducing child mortality and malnutrition. The alumnae of Room to Read have changed social norms. They have been able to negotiate for better jobs for themselves and negotiate themselves out of forced marriages.   

Riyana, a fourteen-year-old girl living in the community of Kathat near Ajmer, Rajasthan dreamt of continuing her education and becoming a teacher. But these dreams were met with resistance.  In Kathat, there is a tradition of group marriages. “My sister was getting married, so my relatives suggested that I, too, should be married off at the same time. This would save costs”. Based on life skills training Riyana convinced her parents that she was too young for marriage and she wanted to continue her studies and become economically independent. Riyana represents thousands of girls who face tradition every day. Many girls drop out of school at puberty. About 1.5 million girls in India get married before the legal age every year. Today, Riyana and many more like her are confidently joining the walk of life.

About Room to Read:

Room to Read has benefitted 4.3 million children in India since 2003 and set up more than 9,000 libraries so far.  Room to Read intends to reach 13 million children by the end of 2024.

Room to Read is an international NGO with HQ in San Francisco, working in the field of education. Founded in 2000 on the belief that World Change Starts with Educated Children®, Room to Read’s innovative model focuses on deep, systemic transformation within schools in low-income communities during two time periods that are most critical in a child’s schooling: early primary school for literacy acquisition and secondary school for girls’ education. We work in collaboration with local communities, partner organizations, and governments to develop literacy skills and a habit of reading among primary school children and ensure girls can complete secondary school with the skills necessary to negotiate key life decisions. Room to Read has benefited 16.6 million children across more than 30,000 communities in 16 countries. Learn more at www.roomtoread.org.

Room to Read India was established in 2003 and presently have programs in 11 states- Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi NCR, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Telangana, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh.  Room to Read has benefited more than4.3 million children and set up more than 9000 libraries.