Roopali Gawde lives in one of the fringe villages surrounding Pune city; she dropped out of municipal school in the eighth standard. She says she found studies "difficult, boring and useless". Teachers often did not come to class, and the boys were rowdy and teased the girls constantly. After she failed her class 8 exams, Gawde decided there was no point in going to school, and began to take on jobs as a domestic worker, along with her mother.
There are hundreds of girls like Gawde from economically disadvantaged families. After a year or two of this kind of work, when the girls are about 16 or 17, their families marry them off. However, Gawde and a few other girls like her, through the intervention of forward-thinking employers, have found new careers, and are earning as much as Rs 3,000 a month. They have even managed to convince their families to stall their marriage until after they are 21 years old. "Marriage will come later," says Sandhya Sutar, 19. For the past four years, after she dropped out of school, Sutar has been working with Kabir Systems, a home and corporate cleaning service.
The cleaning service, run by Smita Rajabali in Pune, employs several girls like Sutar. Rajabali says, "The machines we use are pretty heavy duty, and at first I decided to hire boys, thinking girls would not be able to handle the machines and would not be willing to go to on-site jobs in different parts of the city. Later, quite tired of the absenteeism and shirking on the part of the boys, I tried out a few girls. And they turned out to be hardworking, cheerful, willing to learn and so trustworthy. Now I employ 14 such girls." All the girls come from backgrounds similar to Sutar and Gawde.
"I used to hate math in school. Now I keep daily accounts and am trusted with petty cash too. I learnt accounts in one week and have not made a single mistake in the last 10 months," says Vinita Raut. "We had learnt English from the third standard onwards in school, but I could not speak a single sentence, partly because I did not know the language well enough and partly because I was shy. But the lady for whom I used to work as a maidservant talked so nicely to other people, and her daughter and son used to tease me by talking in English to me. That's how I learned the language. Smita (Rajabali) Madam also taught us some English words for different products and methods that we use, and a few sentences to greet customers."
Manju Rupkal is the daughter of a ragpicker. The ragpicker's association in Pune saw to it that she had access to education in a municipal school and then a mobile school. When she dropped out of school in the seventh standard, the association placed her with an employer who runs a chain of food stores. Here, Rupkal was first trained in stocktaking, later taught to handle the checkout counter, and hopes to train in the purchase department soon. Rupkal is proud that she now speaks better Hindi and is learning a bit of English too. She is also keen to familiarize herself with merchandise that she has never before been exposed to. Today, she earns Rs 2,600 a month for an eight-hour shift and says that she looks forward to going to work every morning.
What do the girls do with their salary? Some give everything to their mothers, who put some part of it away in an informal bank (a chit-fund of sorts), and use the rest to run the household. Some girls are able to keep about Rs 500 for themselves, to buy a few trinkets, possibly clothes and even gifts for each other or for younger siblings. Sometimes, satisfied clients give the girls used clothes, shoes, bags, household goods like bed linen, or small pieces of furniture. These are welcomed if they are in good condition.
Will they continue working after marriage? "Who knows? If we get married to someone in another town, then...," rues Raut. However, Gawde is quite clear that now she will ask her parents to find a groom who is from the same area, so she can continue working for some years at least. As for Raut, she is involved with a young man working in the same chain; they plan to marry in two years' time, once the boy's two sisters are married, and they have also saved some amount of money. The boy belongs to a different caste, but is from the same socio-economic background. They have not told their families as yet, but they do not expect a lot of opposition to their marriage.
While most of these girls as well as their parents, even their employers, believe that a school education is essential, they have taken a realistic view of the available education system and what it can or cannot do for them. The girls have, instead, chosen for themselves different non-formal avenues of vocational training. The support of progressive employers has played an essential part too.