For years, 12-year-old Madhubala Bishnoi’s life was not very different from that of generations of girls before her in this far corner of Rajasthan, India. Married at 11, 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 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 five 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.
The KGBV residential schools were established in 2004 under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) as an incentive to poor and mostly illiterate parents to send their daughters to school. They primarily 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, at least till class 8. In Rajasthan, one of India’s most educationally challenged states where the social order is still largely feudal, some 200 KGBV residential schools have been set up in 13 specially identified focus districts.
Transforming village girls
Since she first came to the residential school a year ago, the change in Madhubala has been striking. “When the girls first come, they usually have lice as well as stomach and skin disorders,” says Seema Bishnoi, the young teacher and warden who helps look 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.
The parents too are proud of their daughters’ transformation. From beneath her veil, illiterate Pappu Devi, the mother of Mamta, another hostel resident, 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.”
It is also of great comfort to the parents to know that their daughters are in safe hands and living in far better conditions than they could ever provide. All the hostels have electricity, toilets and running water, a luxury in this poor desert region. Moreover, all the girls’ expenses are provided for by the program – from board and lodging, to medical check-ups, uniforms, toiletries, stationery, and books – expenses that parents could be willing to spend on their sons but not often on their daughters.
Strong community support
Yet, despite the numerous benefits that the residential schools provide, 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. “Most were poor farmers or laborers working in the local quarries. I used to cite my own example and 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 made something of my life. I think the fact that I was from the same background and belonged to their own community – the Bishnois – helped to convince them.”
Another important factor that has enabled traditional rural families to entrust their daughters to others’ care is the strong community support that the girls’ hostels receive in the state. 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 in their kitchens.
Changing the girls’ perception of themselves
At the KGBVs, the girls are helped to catch up on lost learning through bridge courses and evening classes. More importantly, the teachers seek to 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 normally are the fifth or sixth daughters in their families, she explains, 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 restore her self-esteem and make her feel valued.”
The girls blossom in a caring environment. They are encouraged to paint, sing, dance, and play a variety of games – from kho-kho and kabaddi to badminton. They also learn to ride bicycles to become more independent, a dramatic departure from their mothers’ and sisters’ dependence on the men in the family whenever they leave home. In this, their warden is an inspiration. “If any child is sick,” says the intrepid Bishnoi, “I just put her on the motorcycle behind me and ride straight off to the doctor.”
Creating a feeling of home
Yet, for all the rapid change that is being introduced in the lives of these young village girls, the old is consciously blended with the new. “We keep the atmosphere of a village home,” says Bishnoi. “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.” They do, however, introduce new foods – such as wheat chapattis – into the girls’ diet, a staple that has not traditionally been part of the sparse desert fare.
The girls receive visits from their families and go home for weddings and festivals. In keeping with rural practices, parents often ask for them to be sent home during the harvest season when the whole family has to pitch 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 in the state have been changing over the past two decades. In the early 1990s, the Lok Jumbish and the Shiksha Karmi programs worked to mobilize communities in favor of girls education in the educationally backward and tribal districts of the state. In the mid 1990s, a series of District Primary Education Programs (DPEP) were introduced in districts where female literacy was low. New initiatives to bring out-of-school children into school were pioneered, planning was decentralized, and communities were actively involved. In 2001, the Central Government introduced its flagship Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan program to provide elementary education for all India’s children.
“One of the real success stories of the SSA has been increasing girls’ enrollment in elementary education. Girls’ share in elementary enrollment is now equal to their share in the general population. The recently completed Public Report on Basic Education, conducted in 7 of India’s lowest literacy states, found that the percentage of girls who had never been enrolled in school dropped from more than 20 percent in 1996 to less than 4 percent in 2006. That is thanks largely to SSA programs like the KGBVs, and parents’ increased awareness of the importance of education for ALL their children,” says Sam Carlson, Lead Education Specialist at the World Bank, New Delhi.
Attitudes to girls’ education are changing
At the Popavas hostel, Hira Devi, mother of 11 year-old Bidami, acknowledges that her family’s attitude to girls’ education has changed. Her two eldest daughters, now married, barely studied until class 5. “At that time, the elders in our joint family said there was no need to educate the girls too much. Now the older girls feel denied. But times have changed. These days people say that instead of Kanya dan (giving the daughters away in marriage), one should give them an education. The fathers and grandfathers nod in agreement. Change is coming, slowly but surely, to Rajasthan.