How Utkarsha pushed past gender discrimination toward her dream

MUMBAI — If Utkarsha Mahadeshwar followed suit of the rest of the girls from her slum community of Dharavi, she would’ve been married by age 13 and had a baby by now.

Instead, the 16-year-old is about to start junior college at Ruparel College, one of the top universities in Mumbai.

“Gender inequality is a huge problem in my community,” Utkarsha said. “After age nine, we’re not supposed to play with boys or even play outside. I would have neighbors yell at me when I would try to play.”

People in Utkarsha’s family had written her off because of her poverty and gender. Utkarsha’s relatives did not speak to her family because they were so poor in comparison to the rest of her family.

Utkarsha found her saving grace in Magic Bus, which provided her the hope to one day break out of poverty.

In weekly Magic Bus sessions, she interacted with both boys and girls her age and was taught lessons around the importance of health, education and gender equality. Around the time of puberty, Utkarsha and her peers were taught sessions around reproductive and sexual health, which Utkarsha claimed was “extremely helpful.”

“Mothers here don’t like to discuss private things such as periods or pads,” said Utkarsha’s mother, Pramila. “I even learned a lot of things I didn’t know through Utkarsha. I am very thankful for that.”

Many girls in Dharavi drop out of school after getting married, or if they go to school, they do not continue past 10th grade. Not only has Utkarsha flourished in school, but she plans to pursue a Master’s in Business Administration. In her spare time, she tutors her neighbors and helps her 12-year-old brother with his studies.

Utkarsha’s education has been fostered through Magic Bus, and her parents are forever grateful. Her mother was a high school dropout, and her father did not pass the  12th grade. He now works in a small restaurant.

“Since I dropped out, I am a housewife.” Pramila said. “I do not want Utkarsha to repeat my mistake. I want her to complete her education and help other children in our community.”

Her outstanding performance on the 10th grade exam made everyone sit up and take notice. She was invited to the United States last year for a program funded by the U.S. State Department because of her leadership skills and academic success.

“That was the proudest moment of my entire life,” Pramila said.

Word of Utkarsha’s high test score and her trip to the United States travelled quickly through the Dharavi community, and soonafter, Utkarsha was paid an unexpected visit.

“My cousin and his son, who is in the medical field, came to our home,” Pramila said. “I never expected they would visit. They didn’t care about us before because we were poor. But they came and they were so proud of her. They blessed her.”

Since the visit, Utkarsha has kept in close contact with her uncle, who is mentoring her while she prepares for junior college.

Utkarsha was recently selected to be a Magic Bus Community Youth Leader in Dharavi. She is now excited to begin running Magic Bus sessions for children just like her and making a change within her community.

“Before Magic Bus, she was so shy,” Pramila said. “Now because of all the interaction and all the learnings through Magic Bus, she has built confidence and is so smart. I am very proud of her.”

Utkarsha is one simple story of change within Magic Bus participants. She is one of nearly half a million children in India in Magic Bus programs who is working toward her dreams of continue her education and breaking out of the poverty cycle.

Originally produced for Magic Bus summer 2017.