Today, on 3 January 2022, we are celebrating the 191st birth anniversary of Savitribai Phule. She was the first modern Indian woman to have become a teacher and educated girls at a time when girls were not even allowed inside a school. Today, as we celebrate Savitribai Phule Jayanti, let’s learn more about her and her struggle towards educating girls in India.
The 1800s were a time of struggle for women in India. They would be married off early, education was off-limits and because of high mortality rates, most of them would become widows even before reaching adulthood. And while it was such a tough time to be a woman, it was even harder to be a woman who wanted to reform society. Savitribai was born in that era (3 January, 1831) in the village of Naigaon in Satara District, Maharashtra.
Married off at the tender age of nine to a 13-year-old Jyotirao Govindrao Phule, Savitribai experienced what it was like to be in a child marriage. But her thirst for learning impressed her husband, who then taught her to read and write. He even pointed out her talent for poetry. This made her one of the few women at that time to be properly educated.
Savitribai understood the importance of education and knew that if she wanted to change the lives of other women, she would have to educate them first. She trained at Ms. Farar’s Institute in Ahmednagar and Ms. Mitchell’s school in Pune. With the teacher’s training courses, she soon started teaching girls in Maharwada in Pune along with Sagunabai – the leading light who paved the path for the Phule couple’s revolutionary interventions, a feminist and Jyotirao’s mentor.
On 1 January 1848, the Phules set up the first school for girls in Bhide Wada in Pune, and their first batch consisted of just eight girls. But running a school for Savitribai was not an effortless task. She often faced verbal abuse from conservatives from her own community and the upper castes. People even hurled rotten eggs and cow-dung at her. But the indomitable Savitribai Phule would care less about it and would carry an extra sari to the school.
Headstrong and determined, Savitribai became the first female teacher in India and, along with her husband, opened 18 schools in various parts of Maharashtra. Their schools welcomed children from all castes and taught mathematics, science and social studies.
Besides pushing for female education, Savitribai Phule also played a significant role in social reform movements, especially in Maharashtra. She was always vocal about inhuman and unjust practices that persecuted women and young girls. In 1852, she founded the Mahila Seva Mandal to raise awareness for women’s rights and dignity. She even organised a barbers’ strike in Mumbai and Pune to protest the custom of tonsure (shaving the heads of widows). She also instituted a care centre called Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha in her own house to protect pregnant child widows from getting victimised by society.
Savitribai was a fearless lady who never hesitated to raise her voice against practices like sati and child marriage. Her birthday is celebrated as ‘Balika Din’ in Maharashtra.
An iconic figure who was way ahead of her time, Savitribai died at the age of 66 in Pune, during the bubonic plague while tending to a sick child. Her legacy, however, continues to inspire all of us.
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