For poor girls in rural India, to be able to study even up to class five is often a distant dream. Many have never gone to school and those who have been fortunate enough to begin their schooling end up dropping out within a few years. According to the 2001 Census, the female literacy rate in India is 53.67 per cent, with 46.13 per cent in rural areas.
As an attempt to reverse this dismal trend, residential Mahila Shikshan Kendras (MSKs), run under the aegis of the Mahila Samakhya (MS) programme, have been set up to provide quality education for free till class five.
The MS programme was initiated in 1989 to translate the goals of the National Policy on Education into a concrete initiative for the education and empowerment of girls and women. Currently, it is operational in nine states, including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh (UP), Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh. An estimated 200,000 women have been organized via this programme into collectives called Mahila Sanghs (women's groups), which take up issues of development and poverty alleviation in their villages. However, their greatest impact has in the area of girls' education.
And that's where the MSKs play an important role. In UP, there are 12 MSKs that mainly focus on girls who have never been to school or have had to drop out. So far, more than 450 girls and women, 90 per cent from poor Dalit (downtrodden) families, have studied at the Saharanpur MSK, set up in 1996. It is currently running its 14th batch of around 35 students, aged between 12 and 19 years.
The 'Kishori Profiles', prepared by the MSK teachers for the girls, give an insight into the condition they live in. Many have both parents engaged in low paid wage work and thus have to spend their day doing domestic chores; looking after younger siblings; and working in the fields. It is not surprising then that in their profiles many have stated cooking and washing dishes to be their favorite occupations!
If the pressing need for domestic labor provides the immediate reason for keeping girls out of village schools, the absence of adequately equipped schools and motivated teachers reinforces the trend. Tina, 15, the daughter of a brick kiln worker from the Ranimajra near Deoband, stopped going to school after Class Two because nothing really happened in class. After joining the Saharanpur MSK, she now wants to study as much as she can.
Sometimes, when parents take the first step of sending their daughters to school, life situations intervene to keep girls back. Sharmila, 17, a Dalit girl from Laundhora Gujar village in Baliakheri Block, had to drop out of Class Two when her mother passed away. As the eldest daughter, she was responsible for the family's welfare. Had it not been for the 'sahyogini' (facilitator) of the village Mahila Sangh, Sharmila would never have gone back to school. Today, she is in Class Seven at the local middle school and dreams of becoming a teacher.
A 'sahyogini' facilitates the formation of Mahila Sanghs, which performs many functions including running small savings groups and acting as a support group for women, and also plays a vital role in making the MSK a success.
It takes a lot of persuasion for poor parents to send their daughters to the centers. Most fend off any attempts by saying: What will she do after studying? Why should she study if her mother hasn't? She is too old to be sent to school now. But the 'sahyogini' painstakingly works towards bringing about a change in their attitude.
Once they are convinced most parents are not sorry. Says one proud mother from Laundhora Gujar, "At least my daughter is able to write, use the telephone and read the bus route number. She will not be called an 'angootha tek' (illiterate)."
At MSK, the girls are taught about women's rights, gender equality, health and hygiene, along with regular schoolwork that helps them pass the class five exam conducted at the local school. The customized curriculum has been developed by the Saharanpur MSK on the basis of the UP Board guidelines with the help of teaching material prepared by NGOs and the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT).
A typical school day begins at 5.30 am and by 10 am the children have exercised, read the newspaper, prayed and had their breakfast to start the various lessons. Breaking for lunch at one, the girls have classes till six in the evening when they have an hour to play. They are then given time to browse through books in the library for an hour. The day ends after dinner at nine.
As a result of the wholesome education, a slow but sure social change has been initiated in the villages of the district. Most of the MSK girls are no longer willing to marry in their teens, a common enough practice in the region. Most recall the poignant song taught to them at the centre, reflecting the desire to delay marriage to a more appropriate age.
Meri bali umar,
Mera rishta na kar,
Is rishte ko thukrane de;
Jo dukh tune jhele hain,
Maiya na mujhko jhelne do,
Abhi choti umar hai meri;
Meri shadi na karne do...
(I am still of a tender age,
Don't get me engaged,
Let me reject this match;
The unhappiness that you have borne,
Mother, do not let me bear it,
I am still of a tender age,
Do not get me married)
The women of Laundhora Gujar say that the age of marriage in their village has definitely gone up in recent times. While some of the older women claim they were married even at seven, hardly any girl today ties the knot before she turns 17 or 18.
There is another significant change in the attitude of the young women. They harbor ambitions to take up careers like teaching and the civil services. When eighteen-year-old Sangeeta's parents opposed her desire to continue with her education, the women of village Mahila Sangh got together to support this Dalit girl. "When I came to the MSK, I did not even know how to sign my name," recalls Sangeeta, who is handicapped. She is glad that the Saharanpur MSK took her in as she had discontinued her education because of her handicap - physical impairment of the legs. Currently, she is in Class Ten.
Says young Lalita, another Saharanpur MSK student, "I want to grow up and become an (police) inspector like the girl in the television programme 'Udaan'." ('Udaan' was a popular TV show whose main protagonist, a humble small town girl, becomes an IPS officer.)
Definitely, it is the MSKs that have brought on this change. But it would not have been possible without the dedication of the staff and teachers. Nisha Chaudhry, who is in her early 30s, is the head of the Samakhya operations in Saharanpur. She has set a fine example for the girls. Coming from a conservative rural family, Nisha struggled all the way from being a telephone operator to her present station.
For the MSK students, she provides a role model seconded only by their teacher Rekha, 42, a Kumhar woman from the Nagal Block of Saharanpur, who has been with the MSK since its inception. The students insist they do not miss their parents as their 'didi' (elder sister) loves and cares for them. In fact, the girls are so comfortable being at the Kendra that even the mention of the day when they will pass out and leave its secure premises brings tears to their eyes.