The Inspiring Educator

In our present times more women than ever before in recorded human history are achieving important landmarks in myriad aspects of life. Today’s women can take inspiration from a nineteenth century social reformer named Savitribai Phule, who played a crucial role in bringing about a significant improvement in the largely confined and depressing lives of Indian women of the nineteenth century. Her contributions to the cause of women’s empowerment in India cannot be overlooked.

Born on 3rd January 1831, in a Dalit family at Naigaon village of the Satara district in Maharashtra, Savitribai got married to Jyotirao Phule at the age of nine. Her husband was also a 13year-old boy at that time, when child marriage was rampant in India. She was illiterate when she was married. That was not surprising for during the early nineteenth century India, literacy for girls was a glaring exception, often causing alarm in the society. Soon after her marriage she moved to Pune with her husband.

It was Jyotirao Phule, who himself went on to become a renowned social reformer, initiated Savitribai to literacy and education, after seeing her passion towards learning. Savitribai took teacher’s training in Ahmednagar and Pune and soon after the couple started a girls’ school in Pune, in 1848, where she taught. She became the first female Indian teacher. 

Of course, this caused lots of resentment and fury in the then thoroughly conservative Indian society. People even threw stones at her as she went to school to teach. She often had to carry an extra saree while going to her school as she was hurled with not only stones but dung. She was also subjected to verbal abuse. But undeterred, she carried on her mission to educate girls. Earlier, she and her husband were told to leave her father-in-law’s house where they were staying as the couple’s work was considered to be a sin as per Manusmriti.

 By the end of 1851, Savitrbai and Jyotirao were running three different schools for girls in Pune, which had a total of 150 students. nJust two years later, in 1853, Savitribai and Jyotirao established an education society which went on to open more schools for girls and women from all classes, in surrounding villages.

Eventually Savitribai and Jyotirao opened 18 schools across India. What was even more remarkable was that she taught children of all castes in her school together; a significant move in a society steeped in caste discrimination. In fact, her fight against caste discrimination was of less significance than her championing the education of girls.

In 1854, while empathising with the sorry state of widows in India at that time, she opened a shelter for them.

In 1863, the Phule couple also opened a care centre named Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha which in English means centre to stop child killing. It was meant for pregnant rape victims. At the centre the rape victims’ children were delivered. It was probably India’s first centre prohibiting infanticide. This initiative, which was unique in India’s social milieu at that time, helped save many infant deaths. Savitribai also voiced against the evil custom of dowry. In 1864, Savitribai was instrumental in opening a large shelter for destitute women, widows and child brides forsaken by their families. She also educated them.

From Savitribai’s struggles and eventual triumphs today’s women can be inspired to not only rise above one’s circumstances, but also to inspire and help others to improve their lives. Savitribai was illiterate at the time of her marriage but she not only got educated but helped many other girls to get education. 

Today the condition of women in India has improved significantly as compared to their miserable status in the nineteenth century but still their individual and career growth are often fettered by outdated patriarchal notions. So today’s women in India could be inspired by Savitribai who swam against outdated and thoroughly oppressive societal waves and contributed to herald a better future for Indian women. They could also be inspired by Savitribai’s life to not get deterred by criticism and outrage from society while following their passion or zeal. 

Like the life of Savitribai, her death was also exemplary. She opened a clinic for plague victims as the worldwide Third Pandemic of the bubonic plague spread its deadly tentacles. While carrying a 10-year-old plague victim on her arms, she contracted the disease herself and died a heroic death, on 10th March 1897. 

Besides being an exemplary educator and social reformer, she was also an accomplished poet, and had to her credit two books of poems.

From Savitribai’s life, today’s women and also men can get inspired to live for a larger cause beyond one’s career growth and other individual ambitions, and empathise for the unfortunate and the downtrodden, which eventually can give a sense of purpose to one’s life and a satisfaction which cannot be measured by material terms. 

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