"Whenever I put queries to my masterji, he pinched my back or hit me on the head. I didn't like to be touched by him, so I stopped going to school," says Sabiha Bano, 12, from Firozabad district, Uttar Pradesh (UP). "My teacher called me a dalit (member of the lowest caste) and even hit me at times. Boys in my class insulted me and did not let me sit next to them. I want a school just for girls," says Dulari Pasi, 9, a resident of Lalitpur district.
The above statements give a clear picture why the state of UP has a high drop out rate for girls before they reach Class 5. Violence and discrimination prevent girls from continuing their education. According to a recent survey conducted by INGO ActionAid (AA), it is violence at various levels, more than poverty, that appears to be the primary reason for the high drop out rate.
The AA 2004 survey was conducted in nine UP districts - Barabanki, Mirzapur, Bhadohi, Orai, Saharanpur, Firozabad, Maharajganj, Ghazipur and Lalitpur - identified by the state government for the highest number of dropouts. Over 1,000 girls, along with their parents and villagers, were interviewed. Most of the girls talked about the kind of violence they faced in order to access school education. Some were beaten up in school and at home; many were humiliated (called names in class); while others talked of sexual abuse by teachers and boys.
The survey quotes Sunaina Singh of Mirzapur: "The boys of my class used to draw vulgar sketches about girls. When we tried to stop them, we were beaten up." This left her with no option but to leave the school. A group of girls also said during their interviews that their male teachers often tried to touch them on the pretext of beating them, which they "did not like".
According to the survey, 71 per cent of the girls who dropped out of schools in the Bundelkhand region of UP did so because they were embarrassed by the sexual remarks the boys and teachers made. Over 9 per cent girls complained they were molested by their teachers and 12 per cent complained of being sexually abused by male classmates.
The AA survey claims that though 28 per cent girls complained to the authorities about such incidents before leaving their school, no action was taken against the guilty. Their families were also not very supportive. "When I told this (case of sexual abuse) to my mother, she said that I had grown up and should now stay at home. My father beat me whenever I wanted to go to school," says Kamla Rani from Saharanpur.
Social activist and researcher Utkarsh Sinha, who conducted the survey, says, "There is social stigma attached to such cases. Girls suffer in silence and have no option but to leave school. Even the government has not identified these causes and concentrates only on the economic aspect. It considers poverty as the biggest reason and hence, tries to solve the problem by offering mid-may meals or scholarships."
Long distances between school and home also make girls more vulnerable. "My daughter is grown up now. The village boys tease her on the way to school. She has to pass through the fields and I fear for her security. I have forced her to leave the school," says Kunti, mother of a 12-year-old girl from Lalitpur, in the AA study. Shalu Rani, 13, dropped out of school when she couldn't stand the constant taunts of village elders any longer. "My mother said I have to live amidst these people and have to follow their ways. If they did not want me to go to school, I cannot," said Shalu in her interview.
The female literacy rate in UP (which has a population of 166 million) is barely 42.98 per cent compared to the male literacy rate of 70.23 per cent. According to Census 2001, the male/female sex ratio is 1000/898 compared to the national average of 1000/933.
In 1999, a Rajya Sabha committee asked to identify reasons for the increasing dropouts, considered poverty as the biggest challenge. It recommended that since most children were involved in some kind of labour, providing them meals at the school would encourage them to be more regular. According to the state government, besides the midday meal scheme, scholarship schemes have also been launched in the recent past to encourage girls to continue school.
However, the AA survey indicates that the government needs to look deeper into the problem. Hanumant Rawat, who heads AA's Lucknow office, says: "We have tried to identify the causes which have perhaps not been detected by the government. We want the girls to go to school and since they are part of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All) programme, we hope the education department takes action on our report."
Sanjay Mohan, Director, Department of Basic and Primary Education, says," We will try to look into the things mentioned in the report. We may even open separate schools for girls in some areas."