Women's Education Project
"Sudar is a fitting name. (It means flame in Tamil), and this place really gives light to people's lives." Former Sudar student quoted in The Hindu, 2002
Karpagum (not her real name) a vivacious nineteen year old in a graceful lemon-yellow salwar kameez, looks like any other undergraduate student at Meenakshi Government College or, indeed, any of the millions of female college students in India today. She is however different.
Karpagum is from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Madurai, South India. Unlike most of her classmates, her day begins at 5:30 pumping water (provided there is not a shortage) with other neighborhood women at a public pump. She carries the large five-gallon pot to her family's one room house, at the end of a narrow street bordered by an open sewer where children, vendors, cows and goats jostle for space. She helps her mother prepare the daily meal of soup and rice and then begins a two-mile walk to her first class, which, today, is calculus.
Sudar was founded in 2002 by Zoë Timms, a young American living in India, who with a visiting friend, Kathryn Ugoretz, saw the need of a program like Sudar while discussing ways to help Meena, an Indian women they had befriended.
Meena (not her real name) spoke four languages and dreamed of working in investment banking. But her mother's leprosy, father's alcoholism and her family's terrible poverty forced her to work as a shop assistant rather than pursue the higher education that would have made this possible. Meena wanted to move her family to a better apartment and provide medicine for her mother's needs. In discussing her plight, Zoë and Kathryn realized that providing college funds for intelligent but trapped women would transform not only their lives, but those of their families and communities.
Encouraged by a small group of women including the head of a local college, and members of the business, arts, and legal communities, Zoë formed Sudar Foundation in Madurai, a teeming city of over one million people in Tamil Nadu, South India. During her initial research, students from poor backgrounds indicated that in the college classroom they felt ill-prepared, shy, and expressed the need for quiet study space which they could not find at home. Their parents, many uneducated, some illiterate, could not advise them or afford tuition. Their professors required them to have basic study skills and be fluent in English. Everyone interviewed agreed that Sudar was needed and that it should be an open, comfortable space for women to learn among their peers.
Once these needs were understood, Zoë invited a lawyer, a college president, a small business owner, two professors, and the director of an NGO helping street and working children to form a local board of directors. Together, they established a scholarship program and a support curriculum. Part-time teachers were hired to instruct in English, computers, study skills, teacher-training, health, financial management and other subjects. The center developed a library, computer lab, study rooms and began a career resource center. Students formed peer study groups and began a volunteer program in the community. Meena, who went on to complete an MBA, was Sudar's first success.
Today, a local director, an office assistant, and a housekeeper run the center; a pleasant two story house surrounded by an herb garden on a tree lined street in a neighborhood close to three of Madurai's colleges. Here, Sudar students become valued - by their family, society, and most importantly, themselves. In this center of quiet spaces for instruction, study, and reflection, women from impoverished backgrounds grow in knowledge, confidence, and self-esteem.
Each year, forty young women attend Sudar courses and twenty-five receive college scholarships. Sumitha, like Karpagum, is a typical Sudar student. A law student from a nearby agricultural village, she came to Sudar anemic, knowing no English, and failing many of her courses. Now after three years at Sudar, Sumitha has graduated from law school and is working for a Madurai attorney. In a recent letter she said "[Sudar] is a great opportunity [not only] for me, but for all poor students to get good opportunities. ... I want [Sudar] to become a large organization in Madurai... and the world."
Sudar is just the beginning. Under the banner of the Women's Education Project (WEP), their new umbrella, Zoe and WEP board are developing plans for centers in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh and Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. These centers, like Sudar will bring light to the lives of aspiring young women. Who knows where it will lead!
Women's Education project is a 501(c)(3) non-profit registered in the State of New York.