That’s term of address all students use for teachers — including the males. The idea is to present an alternative model of masculinity so that the students see their male teachers as caring and nurturing.
Every week, the ‘aunties’ hold a ‘critical dialogues’ session, an open discussion on issues that are very real to students such as domestic violence and street sexual harassment. Some discussions include boys from the nearby Prerna Boys School. Boys and girls are made to calculate how many hours of housework they are each allotted. “When we raise these issues, boys say no one has ever talked to them about what is right and wrong in these situations,” says Prerna principal Rakhi Panjwani.
Teachers offer practical advice, discussing loans, scholarships and the pressure to marry. These discussions also include Prerna alums coming back to relay their success stories and police officers guiding girls on how to file an FIR in cases of domestic violence.
These life lessons go a long way. “We had a 12-year-old student whose friend was being married against her will. She showed up at the baarat and told them to stop or she’d call the cops,” says Panjwani.
They also hold rallies in the communities that the girls belong to once or twice a year. They discuss and spread awareness about issues the girls hold important such as dowry and alcoholism in the family, through street theatre, letter signing campaigns and public oaths.
Girls in Class 8 are asked to make a career plan over two years, and the school offers advice on how to achieve goals. Several Prerna alum have gone on to pursue MBAs and law degrees, and others have become teachers, some of them at the school. As of 2016, 97.4% of their graduates had gone on to pursue higher education.
The confidence comes from the curriculum, from being encouraged to speak out, make eye contact and even laugh loudly. Such is its success that Prerna’s empowerment curriculum has been adopted by 950 schools across UP and Rajasthan. The curriculum is taught to girls once a week in these schools, where the teachers have been trained by Prerna faculty. They are in the process of developing a similar curriculum for boys.
They have also started a local college affiliated with Lucknow University where many students of Prerna enroll to pursue higher education. They offer industryoriented degree courses in fields like journalism and business administration, as well as vocational courses on application development and conversational English. Urvashi Sahni, founding president of the parent organisation of Prerna schools and college Study Hall Educational Foundation, says, “It’s quite remarkable to see that our girls are the smartest and most confident students in the college.”
GIVING PRERNA: Girls are encouraged to speak out, make eye contact and even laugh loudly at Prerna Girls School in Lucknow
“While academic performance is important, we want to create a generation of women with social and political consciousness,” she says.