By Jacquelyn Martin
The Associated Press
DEHRADUN, India (AP) — In the pre-dawn fog of winter, a gong peals once and girls wrapped in shawls and head scarves emerge from their dormitories to attend Hindu prayers. A fire is lit as their young voices chant ancient Sanskrit verses.
Lying in the foothills of the Himalayas, the Akhil Bharatiya Mahila Ashram is home to 50 girls from poor communities across India. The ashram gives them an education, housing, food, and Hindu religious instruction.
The girls say life here has given them the confidence to do anything that men can do.
“The ashram is run by women, for women,” said Ish Ahuja, the president of the ashram. “We want the girls to stand on their own, to stand equally with men,” she said.
The ashram opened in 1945 as a home for elderly women, but later began accepting girls aged 9 to 18.
All expenses, including school fees, clothes, and food, are paid for from donations. Computer education and sewing training are also provided. The girls take care of each other, preparing their own meals, braiding each others’ hair, praying, and studying together.
On a recent afternoon, Sonia Yadav, 15, pasted photos of models from a magazine into a school project.
Sonia came to the ashram when she was 9 years old. She wants to be a fashion designer once she leaves the ashram. “I don’t want to get married so early. I want to do something,” she said.
Some girls come here because their education would have stopped by age 10 had they remained at home.
Rietambhar Pandit, 16, is from Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. “I came here to study. It was my wish to come here, and I asked my parents to send me. I’ve gotten confidence by living in the ashram.”
In a country where girls are often seen as burdens, particularly in poor families that can go into debt for years to pay wedding dowries, the ashram is a haven.
Priyanka Mahto, 16, says it has taught her that girls can do anything boys can. She plans on becoming a doctor. ♦