As the whole world has been forced to adapt to a virtual world for nearly everything – from shopping for groceries and essentials to business and education – it is probably the worst possible time to not have a proper device to go online. Yet, this is the reality for students from low-income as well as rural communities everywhere.
“I have been using my phone for my classes. It was definitely harder to attend them and focus because I’d be holding my phone from 8am to 12pm,” said Pennarasi Ratchagan, an 18-year-old STPM student and an alumni of the Maharani Learning Lab.
Pennarasi’s sentiments were echoed by her former classmates, Goushalya Manikavasagam and Ramyabarathi Thanabalan, who are also currently pursuing their tertiary education. Like Pennarasi, these girls come from underserved communities in Sungai Siput and have not been able to afford the exorbitant price tag of new devices to facilitate their education.
Goushalya, the daughter of a security guard and a housewife shares, “My family has faced financial problems during this pandemic, and we could not bear the cost of a laptop for my studies. I reached out to several organisations for support and when I tried Maharani Learning Lab, thank God that RYTHM Foundation agreed to help me.”
The Maharani Learning Lab is a flagship programme by RYTHM Foundation, the social impact arm of the QI Group. Its award-winning Maharani programme was established in 2010 and has since then transformed the lives of over 8,000 girls from marginalised communities in Malaysia. Through the programme, RYTHM Foundation has been able to impact lives under their three main pillars – education for all, gender equality and sustainable community development – all of which are built upon the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) towards ending poverty.
“The whole programme is about empowering girls to discover their hidden talents and strengths that can unleash their potential, all while ensuring they keep up with their academic progress. As one of our pioneer projects, the Maharani programme has been a learning curve for us. We have continuously reviewed and revised our methodologies to ensure we meet the current needs of the girls and their communities. This has allowed us to replicate the programme for youth in various other locations while incorporating the needs of their communities,” said Santhi Periasamy, Head of RYTHM Foundation.
RYTHM firmly believes that there can only be upsides to enabling girls to pursue an education, including breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty and disadvantage. Having an education empowers these girls with ideas of their potential to build better lives for themselves and their communities. The Maharani programme strives to instil the confidence, skills and knowledge in adolescent girls so that they can become formidable, civic-minded women.
Goushalya, who has been part of the programme since she was 12 said, “Until primary school, I knew nothing about women empowerment, but after joining Maharani Learning Lab, I learned what it means to be a woman. They helped me to understand the power that women wield and taught me how to be a strong and independent woman. It made me proud to be a woman. Without Maharani, I think it would have taken me longer to learn these things.”
Nodding in agreement, Pennarasi and Ramyabarathi too expressed that their time at the lab empowered them with the knowledge, confidence and communication skills to speak up more and share their opinions and ideas with others.
All three Maharani alumni have forged ahead to find direction in their lives and pursue their tertiary education. While Pennarasi is studying for her form six exams, Goushalya is enrolled in a healthcare diploma at the KPJ Healthcare University College, and Ramyabarathi is pursuing a foundation in arts at the Quest International University. Despite not having their own laptops, these girls have been diligently attending classes through their phones while sourcing for donors willing to fund this need.
When word got around about the predicament these three Maharani Learning Lab alumni were in, RYTHM Foundation couldn’t help but step in to take care of their own – proving that once a Maharani girl, always a Maharani girl. RYTHM presented these girls with a new Dell laptop to encourage them to continue on the course of their education.
“Granting the laptops to these girls provides an incentive to encourage them to persevere in their education while also motivating others in the Maharani programme to aspire to these sorts of achievements. In the grand scheme of things, this gesture by RYTHM Foundation also assures their communities of the sincerity of our intentions to upskill entire communities through the youth,” said Santhi as she explained the decision to present the girls with a laptop each.
The girls received their laptops in early September at the Maharani Learning Lab in Sungai Siput. Since coming into possession of brand new, fully-functioning laptops, they acknowledge just how much their loads have lightened now that they can seamlessly attend online classes and complete their assignments. With their minds now at ease, these girls can focus on their goals and academic success.
Pennarasi shares, “I want to be a Tamil lecturer. As a Tamil girl, I want to share my knowledge of my mother tongue and my heritage with others. I see that Tamil people nowadays don’t know Tamil and I believe that we have to start when we want to see change.” Ramyabarathi also aspires to be a Tamil language teacher, while Goushalya has a passion for healthcare and hopes to become a nurse someday.
“It is reassuring to see these girls fulfil their intentions and truly make the most of the opportunities that come their way. Most of these girls have fought against all odds to get to where they are, and they are certainly role models to the younger girls in the Maharani programme. I am positive that Goushalya, Ramyabarathi and Pennarasi will excel in the tertiary education paths they have chosen for themselves and that they will contribute to uplifting their communities to the best of their abilities,” said Santhi.