The desert school: Rajkumar Ratnavati Girls School is empowering Jaisalmer’s girls, women

Rajkumar Ratnavati Girls School, Jaisalmer, run by CITTA India Foundation, is planning to expand with new structures and a Women Economic Centre.

School plans of scaling up the school and empowering rural women with education, skills and entrepreneurship. (Representational Image: Official)School plans of scaling up the school and empowering rural women with education, skills and entrepreneurship. (Representational Image: Official)

Sheena Sachdeva | February 22, 2024 | 03:45 PM IST

NEW DELHI: The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls School, run by the Gyaan Centre of CITTA India Foundation, is set in the Thar desert in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. The school’s unique architecture, an oval-shaped building made of local sandstone, has won awards. Functioning from February 2022, it focuses on the education of girls and women. Chaitanya Raj Singh Bhati, a member of the board of directors, CITTA India Foundation, spoke to Careers360 about plans of scaling up the school and empowering rural women with education, skills and entrepreneurship. Edited excerpts:

Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls School, rajkumari ratnavati school fees, rajkumari ratnavati school website,Chaitanya Raj Singh Bhati, Member of Board of Directors, CITTA India Foundation

Q. How was the idea of a sustainable school in the Thar desert born? Why was Jaisalmer chosen?

A. Jaisalmer was chosen because our family is from here and our efforts will go towards our community. Secondly, in Western Rajasthan, the condition of schools is extremely poor. There are no proper schools and education systems. The government has not been able to fulfil the responsibilities of the state. Hence, we wanted to solve the problem of education in our community.

In Jaisalmer, since inception, we have lived sustainably as much as possible and have also built structures similarly. The concept of sustainability is engrained within our systems and the community living in the city. This was understood by our stakeholders and our architect Diana Kellog, from New York, who emphasised the essence of our community and the sustainability aspect in her design.

Q. How is the Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls School different from other schools in Rajasthan?

A. First, there is no school like this in Western Rajasthan. In the state, half the teachers don’t even attend government schools regularly. And this is a problem that prevails in all rural government schools in India. The school is symbolic due to the education it provides which should have been the work of the government. It is more of a vision that we aim to show to the Rajasthan government and to other stakeholders that good things can be done and we need to focus on education and health in the state, which the government has not prioritised for 75 years.

Q. Were there any challenges that the board had to face while building the structure?

A. There weren’t any major challenges. We wanted to ensure right communication between Kellog, the local engineers and contractors, so that it is not affected by language barriers. Apart from that, the skilled masons in Jaisalmer are quite efficient and we didn’t have to oversee their work.

However, after the infrastructure was ready, the major challenge we faced was in convincing parents of the girls from the community to send their children to the school so that they can have a better life and better opportunities.

Q. How is the school helping the community, especially girls, in their education? What facilities are offered?

A. The current building of the school has a library and a women’s centre. The school is all-girls where young girls are harnessing the important value of education. Through the school, we are trying to empower both the girls and the community with the right skills and knowledge. It is more of supporting and providing confidence to girls to stand up in the real world and find their paths, which was lacking in our community.

We have a rigorous admission process. We have methods like surveys with questionnaires to select girls from the nearby 12 villages.

Q. What does the school teach apart from the mainstream subjects?

A. The school is a primary one with Classes from 1 to 5 and is affiliated to the Rajasthan state board. Currently, the school has 141 girls enrolled with five teachers. Apart from that, we have independent curricula going side-by-side with the mainstream subjects. This curricula is constantly being modified. In addition to scholastic teaching through the textbooks, we also teach the students 21st century skills.

In primary classrooms, our teachers use social-emotional learning methods while explaining different concepts. Teachers use all the art that is spread over the school walls to teach.

We also focus on the physical development of the girls. We offer fitness classes to our students and teach them movements and aerobics. We have a fitness instructor who comes every two months to train the girls.

Q. Other than the school, what opportunities does the Gyaan Centre offer?

A. At the Gyaan Centre of the foundation, currently, women from the village are understanding the weaving work. It’s at an early stage and is more community-focused. We want them to get livelihood opportunities through collaboration in areas like fashion design, art, sculpture and others.

Women in the community are extremely talented in ancient textiles like Ajrakh and Pattu. They are reusing waste material and making designs out of it. We are mainly focusing on upcycling, preserving the old textiles of the region and reskilling them, hence conserving them. We aim to provide entrepreneurial coaching to women from the community so that they are confident to start their own businesses.

We are talking to other non-profits that work in the space so that we can collaborate with them, learn from them, and build better systems for the women. Overall, currently, we are working with local artists, masons, musicians, especially women. We have also collaborated with different fashion designers and artists. However, we need more companies, NGOs, individuals and entrepreneurs to be a part of this story.

We have plans to turn all this work into a Women’s Economic Centre. It will be a slow process because for the community, something like this is new.

Q. How are you planning to scale up?

A. We have two more buildings coming up which will house a library and a textile centre, along with a museum. We will be building a Women’s Economic Centre, especially for mothers of the community, where they can weave fabrics and materials. This skill will also be taught to the girls in the school. The new buildings will have similar sustainable materials available in Western Rajasthan. We aim to scale up to 400 girls, upgrading the school till Class 10.

Q. What are your plans for the next five years?

A. Our vision and mission is to make a corpus fund for the girls of the community so that we don’t have to keep asking for money from other people. We have to make our school and textile centre self-sustainable. We need to chart out a plan that after Class 10, we can move to Class 12, so that girls don’t have to go anywhere else for higher classes.

We also aim to convince the parents to not marry their daughters off. This is our biggest challenge. We have to ensure that girls work even after marriage.

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