Updated: Feb 22
“Sit idle no more, go, get education; End misery of the oppressed and forsaken; You’ve got a golden chance to learn,”
Savitribai Phule wrote these words in her poem Go, Get Education to encourage people, especially women, to fight for their education. For as long as I can remember, my parents have always told me how important it was for me to get an education. They always reminded me that I was presented with a great opportunity to pursue an education, however I don’t think I truly appreciated the opportunity I had until I heard Savitribai’s story. Savitribai Phule was India’s first female teacher who led the education movement for girls. Her story is one that isn’t told often; however, it holds great importance to women pursuing education today.
Savitribai was married to Jyotirao when she was nine and he was thirteen. The tradition back then was to marry the children before they reached puberty. Savitribai’s husband was very well educated and had read multiple religious scriptures. Through his extensive research, he ultimately reached the conclusion that all humans are created equally and decided that education was the best way to spread this message. Thinking this way, he chose to start by providing education to women. He knew that if he wanted to teach girls, then he would need to start at home - with his wife.
Jyotirao began to educate his wife when she would come to drop off his lunch while he was working on their farm. Savitribai was extraordinarily brilliant and quickly picked up what she was taught. When news reached Jyotirao’s father of this, he threatened to kick them both out of their home, so Jyotirao and Savitribai left. Continuing to pursue her education, eventually, Savitribai along with her companion Fatima Sheikh attended a school to get trained in teaching. By 1848, the couple had established India's first school for girls in Vishrambag Wada, Pune. Savitribai was the headmistress and taught the 25 girls along with Fatima and Jyotirao’s other relative, Sagunabai.
In that time period, people were shocked at the audacity of Savitribai to educate women. She was constantly physically and verbally abused for all that she attempted to accomplish. As she was walking to work, men would stand and throw rotten eggs, cow dung, tomatoes, and stones. However, Savitribai never let that get to her. She responded to the haters in the best way possible: "My brothers, I am doing the noble job of educating your sisters. The cow dung and stones that you are pelting on me are not a deterrent but rather an inspiration for me. It is as if you are showering petals on me. While I vow to serve my sisters, I also pray, 'May God bless you.'" Talk about a poised comeback!.
Although she put up a strong persona in front of others, her husband gradually realized that something was wrong. Jyotirao understood that amidst all the animosity against her, Savitribai’s motivation was slowly decreasing day by day. To encourage her further, Jyotirao gifted her two new sarees: one to wear on the way to work and another fresh one to wear at school. With this renewed vigor and energy from her husband’s support, she continued to persevere and even fought back against the people that hurt her.
Today, many women in India are pursuing an education due to the efforts pioneered by Savitribai. Unfortunately, although education for girls has improved in India, there is still much progress to be made. According to the 2018 Annual Status of Education Report, 13.5% of girls in India between the ages of 15-16 were out of school. While this number is a considerable improvement from 20 years ago when more than 20% of girls were not receiving an education we must sustain the efforts of Savitribai and work towards a future where all Indian girls are able to complete their education.
Savitribai Phule paved the way for women to pursue the education that has eluded them for so many years. Her work is continued today through global leaders such as Malala Yousafzai who are defying the status quo every day of their lives.
I often find myself groaning over having to do homework for hours, on top of classes. However, after learning more about Savitribai’s story, I have developed a newfound appreciation for the educational opportunities that have been afforded to me. Instead of taking this gift for granted, I instead should want to work towards completing her goal: providing education to anyone who wants it. Although education rates in India and around the world have significantly increased, there is still work that needs to be done. We can support this cause by donating to organizations such as the Malala Fund and the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund working to decrease the education gap for girls across the world today. Fighting to ensure that little girls aren’t looked over and that their education is taken as seriously as a boy’s, we can ensure that Savitribai’s legacy carries on, both in India and beyond.