A Different Cover Girl

Dusty, neglected Sitamarhi district in north Bihar is the most unlikely of places to encounter girl power. Yet, not only in her own village of Kanholi, but in the district as a whole, an 18-year-old Mushahar (one of the most oppressed communities amongst the schedule castes) girl, is courageously influencing entrenched mindsets to change literacy levels and social practices. In recognition of her indomitable spirit, Lalita was featured on the cover of the UNICEF State of the World's Children Report 2004 and ever since she is a major celebrity here.

Sitamarhi district's claim to fame is the mythological emergence of Goddess Sita from its soil. Now, as if in consonance, it is another daughter of the soil who is transcending all limitations to set new standards for the region. With almost 63.5 per cent of the district's population living below the poverty line, female literacy and girls education has never been particularly high on anybody's agenda. Female literacy, at 26.35 per cent, is almost half that of male literacy (51.02). It is also 7.22 per cent below the state average (33.27), and 27.81 per cent below the national level (54.16). And among women of the schedule castes literacy is a mere 1.6 per cent. 

"I still remember the day my twin brother caught me going to school," recalls Lalita. "He beat me up since he was ashamed of the fact that I dared to study when none of the men in our family had ever attended school. When my mother condoned his violence, I could not understand how mothers do not side with their daughters. Now my mother encourages everyone to send their daughters to school."

Lalita has introduced her community to the merits of education; she works to prevent child marriage and encourages parents to send daughters to school. In addition, she is inspiring the youth to endeavor for a world of possibilities - mobility, independence, gainful occupation, and social acceptability - all through literacy. 

It was in 1997 that the Mahila Shikshan Kendra was started by the Mahila Samakhya - 'Education for Women's Equality' program run as part of the Bihar Education Project - in Muzzafarpur to provide comprehensive, basic education to girls. Lalita was one of a group of 25 girls that attended this innovative eight-month course in the year 2000. This is a residential program for illiterate to semi-literate girls between 12 and 18 years with the ambitious objective of returning them to Class 5 in formal schools. "Uptil then," says Lalita, "I had spent my childhood in housework, collecting fodder and fuel wood and caring for siblings."

Interestingly, the curriculum at the Mahila Shikshan Kendra included anything but housework. Girls learnt to read and count, they learned cycling and karate, hygiene and healthcare, conversation and public speaking. They also expanded their horizon by travelling 200 kms by bus and train to distant Muzaffarpur for the course. Initial resistance from parents and elders was understandable and was a major obstacle in retaining the girls for the complete duration of the course. But now, four years down the line, while the rest of her companions have not pursued their education further, Lalita has become a role model for girls from 1,500 villages of Sitamarhi district. 

Even before she attended the course, Lalita was adamant about acquiring an education. When her family dissuaded her, she would steal away to the 'Jagjagi Kendra' (informal school) run by Kanti Devi, affectionately called Saheli Didi. "It was Saheli Didi who convinced my family about letting me go for the course that changed my life," says Lalita. 

After the course she returned with Rs 300 (an incentive given to each student at the end of the course) and skills that helped her to set up a tailoring shop. But she wanted to study further. Once again she approached the Mahila Shikshan Kendra that responded by sponsoring her to acquire teaching skills in karate while attending regular school. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

She graduated from the basic white belt through various colors of proficiency in karate - yellow, green, blue, orange, brown, and black - in a short span of time. "I love karate since it not only helps in responding to harassment with strength but teaches discipline." After being featured on the cover of the UN Report, she travelled to New Delhi for its simultaneous release from 166 countries. She met politicians, filmstars and faced a press conference, after which she acquired the sobriquet of 'Karate Kid'. "I used to speak only Bajika (the local dialect) in my village but have taught myself Hindi and some day I hope to speak English too," she says earnestly. 

Today, Lalita is a major celebrity, the only literate girl in her community of Mushahars, a karate expert who travels four districts to teach, and also a seventh standard student who supports herself. Lalita also sends Rs 600 home to her family, every month. "Now I believe that every daughter has the potential, and I tell everyone to think differently," says her father Bhadai Majhi. Her mother, Saroopia Devi, beams with pride, "Look at the respect that is being given to my daughter!"

Sangeeta Dutta of Mahila Samakhya says - "While the program is yet to achieve its targets of sending all girls to school, the process itself is bearing results." Her reference is to the increased awareness amongst the communities here of various government schemes that are now being demanded. These include the Indira Awas Yojana or housing loans, ownership of land, better roads and the employment of additional teachers by the panchayats (village councils). Enrolment in local schools has increased substantially, resulting in a demand for more schools. Child marriage too is not acceptable anymore.

Girls are now lining-up for the eight-month-course. The number that comes for the screening process is increasing every year - from 50 in 2003 to 75 in 2004 for just 15 seats in the Sonbarsa Block which includes Lalita's village. Says Sangeeta Dutta, "This is in sharp contrast to the situation four years ago, when the girls and their families had to be coerced to attend the course. Basically, these girls have advanced life skills and their approach to learning is enthusiastic and practical."

As Lalita prepares to demonstrate her karate skills she states emphatically - "This is not what I will be doing forever. I want to keep studying and become an accomplished teacher. I want to teach girls about the world outside their experience. And I dream of a school in every village."  


More by :  Pamela Bhagat

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