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India: With more girls in school, the old social order in Rajasthan is changing

June 16, 2008


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.

" These days, instead of Kanya dan (giving the daughters away in marriage), one should give them an education "

Hira Devi

Strong community support

Yet, despite the numerous benefits, convincing tradition-bound parents to send their young daughters into the great unknown – a hostel far from home – has not been easy.

“We had to go from house to house to motivate the parents,” says Bishnoi, the young warden. “Most were poor farmers or laborers working in the local quarries. I used to tell them that it was only because my own father – a small farmer like them – had let me go to a school far away that I had made something of my life. The fact that I belonged to their own community helped to convince them.”

The strong community support that the girls’ hostels receive has helped convince rural families to entrust their daughters to others’ care. Rajasthan has a long tradition of volunteerism and community solidarity. Therefore, in addition to the hostel’s 24 hour helpline, villagers consider it their duty to protect the girls and help them should the need arise. The hostels, in turn, work closely with local communities, helping widows and other needy women by employing them as cooks and helpers.

Changing the girls’ perception of themselves

Bridge courses and evening classes help the girls to catch up on lost learning. More importantly, the teachers inculcate a sense of self-confidence in the normally-shy girls, for it is only then that the education they receive can truly empower them.

But first, they have to change the girls’ perceptions of themselves. “Many girls come with names like ‘Dhapu’ – literally meaning ‘full stop’,” says Bishnoi. They are the fifth or sixth daughters in their families and their parents name them such to show that they have had enough. “The first thing we do in such cases is to change the girl’s name to something like Lakshmi – the goddess of wealth – to make her feel valued.”  

The girls blossom in a caring environment. They learn, paint, sing, dance, and play games. They also learn to ride bicycles, unlike their mothers and older sisters who still depend on the men in the family to accompany them whenever they leave home. Their warden is an inspiration. “If any child is sick, I just put her on the motorcycle and ride straight off to the doctor,” says Bishnoi.


Seema Bishnoi, the teacher and warden in Jodhpur district rides a motorcycle and is a role model for the girls

Creating a feeling of home

Yet, for all the change in the lives of these young village girls, the old is consciously blended with the new. “We keep the atmosphere of a village home - we speak the village dialect, eat village food, and follow village norms so it’s easier for the girls to adjust to their new surroundings,” says Bishnoi. They do, however, introduce new foods – such as wheat chapattis – into the girls’ diet, a staple that has not been part of the sparse desert fare.

Parents often ask for the girls to be sent home during the harvest season when the whole family pitches in to bring the crop in. “Sometimes, a few girls just stay on at home,” says Bishnoi. Clearly, time, patience, and long-term commitment are required when such a bold and fundamental change is sought to be brought about in a deeply traditional society.

A rising generation 

Although there is still a long way to go, attitudes to girls’ education are changing. “These days, instead of Kanya dan (giving the daughters away in marriage), one should give them an education,” says illiterate Hira Devi, mother of 11 year-old Bidami. The fathers and grandfathers assembled nearby nod in agreement. Slowly but surely, change is coming to Rajasthan.