Knapp Fellow Spotlight: Gayatri Malhotra

Gayatri Malhotra is a Knapp Fellow working with organizations such as Teach for India and Girl Rising on a gender sensitization curriculum in New Delhi. She is studying for her Master in Public Health at the Milken Institute of Public Health and previously studied Biology at Lawrence University, WI. Aleena Khan, a service-learning scholar here at the Nashman Center, spoke to Gayatri about her Gender Equality project and her experience as a Knapp Fellow.

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Aleena: Can you briefly describe your project?

Gayatri: There is a lot of gender-based discrimination that happens in schools, especially in India. If you think about it, kids in India are in school a lot; we are a society in India that really prioritizes schoolwork, getting high marks, doing well in school, and are very career-oriented. There’s no emphasis on extra-curriculars, creativity, art, or sports, so students are spending a lot of time in school. This is where some of these entrenched behaviors occur. Since the teachers, parents, and communities have deep-rooted biases, students learn from them, where they continue to enact those behaviors.

For that reason, I wanted to focus on adolescent-aged students, basically fifth to ninth graders, and to assess gender norms, beliefs and attitudes. To date, there has not been much work done in this area in India.

To that extent, I am working with Girl Rising (GR) and utilizing their gender sensitization curriculum to conduct a feasibility study in Teach for India (TFI) urban-slum schools - specifically government-run schools - in New Delhi. We are evaluating five schools and one after-school community center to see how efficacious the gender-sensitization curriculum would be. Ideally, we would like to implement the GR gender sensitization curriculum nationwide.

The gender-sensitization curriculum specifically uses constructs from the positive youth development scales in addition to looking at gender norms, beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions of middle school students in these government schools in Delhi. In addition, the curriculum addresses topics such as child labor, child marriage, poverty, gender-based violence, and menstruation. Teachers have been trained through a train-the-training workshop and thus are able to provide the program. The teachers have also been provided a teacher’s guide to help implement the program.

In April, I plan to go back to conduct the post-assessment and see if there have been any changes in the students and the teachers.

I chose to work with TFI because while conversations around child marriage, labor and trafficking are difficult to have, young teachers from TIF are already having these discussions in their classroom but don’t have a formal structure or a way to fully address them in a way students can really learn and take action in the community. Girl Rising had already created the gender-sensitization curriculum and by partnering with TFI, we are able to implement the program in these very low socioeconomic government schools and reach a larger community in need. We are hoping to use this data to work with the Indian government and other government schools country-wide.

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A: So when you collect that data, you’re planning on taking it to the Indian government?

G: We’re hoping to really scale it up by working with TFI. Right now, we are in the pilot phase and only in a few schools in Delhi. We want to work with TFI to expand the gender sensitization curriculum in all their partnered schools in six major cities. country-wide. We want to take it to the Indian Board of School Education and ask them, “What are the possibilities of this being a part of your required curriculum?”

A: How did you select the schools?

G: I wanted to evaluate schools from low socioeconomic communities -- I wanted them to be urban-slum areas that have deep-rooted gender biases in the community. We also selected schools depending on the interest of the TFI Fellows and their willingness to implement this 24-week gender sensitization curriculum in their schools. We tried to select second-year TFI Fellows who had more experience working at schools in these communities.

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A: Did you look at the demographics for each school? Or was the selection based mostly on socioeconomic status?

G: It was mostly low socioeconomic status. We did look at some of the demographics-- we have some all-girl schools-- to see the difference between co-ed and all-girl schools and all-boy schools. We did not look at private schools in India since our focus was on government/ public schools.

It’s not an easy project, especially with our research team coming in the middle of class and conducting about 50 surveys at a time with the students on tablets. Each data collection session required 30 minutes of instructions and then about an hour to complete the survey.

Implementing this program is a big commitment for the TFI fellows; they have to be committed to teaching this curriculum for six months, come to workshop trainings, and follow-up with me and my in-country team member by filling out our fidelity form each month that lets us know how they’re progressing through the curriculum. We had to make such that the government schools were ok with the GR curriculum; we had to get approval from the principals, so there were a lot of loops we had to go through in order to select these schools.

A: What made you apply for the Knapp Fellowship? What inspired you to create this project?

G: When I came across the Knapp Fellowship, it seemed to be a good fit, as it is a service-learning opportunity that is research-oriented and allows for a sustainable project. That’s really what I wanted to do. I am passionate about this topic - inspiring children to realize their potential and achieve their dreams no matter the barriers in India. I also understand the difficulties of being a girl in a patriarchal society that oppresses women in many ways. I was personally a middle school student in India and understand the pressure, the stress, and the weight of needing to do well in school. It was all about school. Some of the gender discrimination that I went through as a middle school student allowed me to relate to the middle school students I was working with.

I saw the Knapp Fellowship as an opportunity to do something extremely important in an international setting. The Knapp Fellowship also supported innovative ideas, which encouraged my decision to conduct all our research with the students on tablets. This is a new method of research that engages students in a fun way so that they’re excited to complete the survey.

A: Although your project isn’t finished yet, how has your project personally impacted you thus far?

G: It’s been absolutely amazing. I’ve been learning so much about myself and the communities I’ve worked with in Delhi. Just talking to the students has been so impactful. When conducting fieldwork with the students, I got the chance to look into their lives and understand their everyday struggles. It really made me question, “Why is my life like this and theirs is like that?” which is really a tough question to answer. What did they do, as innocent kids, to deserve that kind of lifestyle?

Many of these kids wake up at around 4-5 a.m. to cook breakfast for their families and prepare meals for their parents, make sure their brothers or sisters are ready for school, and then walk an hour or two to go to school. In the evening, they come back and again cook, clean, work, run errands, and do all these things to help their parents. The struggle is so real for these kids and it’s just not fair. It’s supposed to be the few years in their life to learn, play outside, laugh, have fun, play sports, and just be a kid. The amount of responsibilities they have at such a young age is upsetting, but truly inspiring.

A: Do you think you can describe the international ramifications of your project?

G: The data we collect from this evaluation will be informative for future programs and interventions on gender-sensitization curriculums. I am hoping to publish my findings so that other individuals in the field can learn from it.

One of the smartest investment opportunities for a country that can increase their national economic growth is by simply investing in a girls’ education. By educating a girl in the family, the cycle of poverty can be broken in just one generation.

Through this program, I hope to change attitudes and perceptions among adolescents which will drive change for a new generation of adults. Educating girls can break cycles of poverty in just one generation,

A: How has the Knapp fellowship aided your project? What have you used the Knapp Fellowship for?

G: Everything! I use the Fellowship to fund my travel and for funding even basic things that you usually don’t think about, like printing costs, Wi-Fi (to sync the tablets), and workshop supplies. Now that data collection is over, I’m on the data-analysis side of the project, which has other costs such as translation. The Knapp Fellowship paid for nearly every aspect of my project.

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A: What piece of advice would you give to someone who is unsure about applying for the Knapp Fellowship?

G: If you feel like you have a solid project in mind and that you’re passionate about it, then I would say go for it. The worst thing that they could do is say no. The grant writing experience is so invaluable. If you want to be able to fund your projects in the future, you need to know how to write specifically in a way where you can provide a story. I was trying to think about how I could convince the Knapp Fellowship judges to invest in my project, so that they can see the profound impact it will make for women and children in Delhi and eventually throughout India. If you can see that vision, then stick to it. Even if you don’t get it, it’s a learning experience; the Knapp Fellowship is not the first grant that I applied for, but you get better as a writer on how to pitch your project.

For more information on the partnership between GW and Girl Rising, check out this article in GW Today (which Gayatri was featured in).

The Knapp Fellowship for Entrepreneurial Service-Learning makes it possible for exceptional GW students to combine scholarship with action and change the world. Prizes of up to $10,000 will be given out to student-led service projects. Check out or profile of Knapp Fellow Chloe King here.

Don't miss your chance to apply! The 2018 application is live now and is due by January 12, 2018. For questions about the Knapp Fellowship or for mentorship with your idea contact Wendy Wagner at wagnerw@gwu.edu.