Popavas block, Jodhpur District: For years, twelve-year-old Madhubala Bishnoi’s life was not very different from that of generations of girls before her in this far corner of Rajasthan. Married at eleven, she would remain with her impoverished farmer-parents till she was old enough to be sent to her husband’s home.
Life was not easy in the harsh desert terrain, and daughters often spent all their time in helping their families cope on the margins of survival. “I used to tend to the family’s cattle, fetch water and firewood, and look after my 5 younger siblings,” Madhubala recalls.
Now, Madhubala, scrubbed and clean, enjoys sitting in front of the computer whenever she has free time at school, playing with color and shape on ‘Paint’, her favorite computer program. This complete turnaround in her life came about a year ago when her parents, after much convincing, sent her to the nearest Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) residential school to finally get an education.
In Rajasthan, one of India’s most educationally challenged states where the social order is still largely feudal, some 200 such residential schools have been set up in 13 specially identified focus districts.These residential schools were established in 2004 under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) – India’s Education for All program - as an incentive to poor and mostly illiterate parents to send their daughters to school. The schools cater to girls between 11 and 16 years old who belong to historically disadvantaged communities and have either dropped out of school or have never been to school at all.
The hostels – established in all districts of the country where female literacy is below the national average and gender gaps are large – enable the girls to break away from their traditionally inferior status at home and complete their primary education.
Transforming village girls
The schools transform the girls. “When the girls first come, they usually have lice and stomach and skin disorders,” says Seema Bishnoi, the young teacher and warden who looks after Madhubala and the 77 other girls who stay at the KGBV hostel in Jodhpur’s Popavas block.
“Many of them are anemic,” she adds. “We treat them and teach them basic hygiene – from how to brush their teeth, to always wash their hands with soap before a meal, and even how to use a toilet.”
Madhubala’s squeaky-clean look is testimony to the constant efforts of her teachers. Her uniform is spotless and her once-disheveled hair has been cut short to make it easier to keep clean.
From beneath her veil, illiterate Pappu Devi beams as she surveys her young daughter. “Her whole look and demeanor has changed,” she says approvingly, breaking into a broad smile. “Even the way she speaks is now much nicer.”
For the parents, it is comforting to know that their daughters are safe and living in far better conditions than they could ever provide at home. All the hostels have electricity, toilets and running water, a luxury in this poor desert region. Moreover, all the girls’ expenses are met by the program – from board and lodging, to medical check-ups, uniforms, toiletries, stationery, and books – expenses that families could be willing to spend on their sons but not often on their daughters.