Saying no to marriage by a 15-year-old is not very usual in her village, till she was emboldened by the courage of another girl from her village - Rekha.
Rekha blazed the trail when she refused to get married at the age of 13 and became a profile of courage for others. Her actions were even noticed by India’s first woman President, Pratibha Patil who felicitated Rekha on her refusal to marry at a young age.
Ahalya and Rekha live on a single meal, often of starched rice, every day.
But their act of courage and social rebellion was inspired by the flame of literacy lit by a government initiative to educate the child laborers.
According to recent reports, only 76 adolescent girls are educated for every 100 adolescent boys and more than 55% of out-of-school population is constituted by adolescent girls.
India’s low female literacy is owing to a host of well-known reasons- poverty, early marriage, household work and the continuation of a social practice where girls are considered lesser humans.
India’s political gentry promote education of the girl child but the ground reality is still not conducive for a text book implementation of government policies.
Recently, Union Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Jyotiraditya Scindia said educating a woman is akin to educating her family, drawing from the observation of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on the issue.
India’s economy booms but her girl child still finds it difficult to pursue education and take up a livelihood of her choice. However, there are silver linings in many rural pockets where crossing the barriers of social prejudices and poverty, girls are striving to pursue education.
Angela Walker, Communications Chief of India in UNICEF, writes of a residential school in Uttar Pradesh where girls from the marginalized and low income families are getting an opportunity to be educated.
One hundred solar-powered SUNNAN lamps, donated by IKEA Social Initiative, enable them to study even when lights are out.
The UNICEF official tells the story of Mantasha, who when 13, was taken by her mother to a rich family to work as a maid. She was beaten with the rolling pin and not allowed to sleep till 1 am.
But life changed for her when early this year a teacher at the local Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) residential school, who knew her family, enrolled her at the school.
“My parents brought me here to study,” said Mantasha, who hopes one day to become a doctor. “They say if I study I will have a good life,” she told UNICEF.
The Government of India launched the KGBV residential school programme in 2004 for girls from scheduled caste, schedule tribe and other minority groups.
The programme targets rural blocks where female literacy is below the national average of 46% and large numbers of girls are out-of-school.
Similarly, in West Bengal, the change started occurring in 2006 when villages where Ahalya and Rekha live got National Child Labour Project (NCLP) schools to provide basic education to former child labourers.
According to Prosenjit Kundu, an assistant labour commissioner in Purulia who is working with the girls, it is education which is the agent of change in the rural society.
The passionate government official, who is working hard in the villages along with NGOs and other aid agencies, said the girls are just too keen to study.
“They are half fed. They have no resource. But they love to study,” he said.
So Ahalya, who rolls bidis (which are cheap hand-rolled Indian cigars) the whole day for a pittance which is just enough to manage one meal a day, could defy unspeakable poverty and marriage pressure to pursue study.
Samhita and Global India Fund have announced the Hari Chopra Social Awards 2010 to empower NGOs working for the benefit of girls. The Hari Chopra Social Awards 2010 (HCSA) will identify and support innovative and deserving non-profit organizations that improve the health and wellbeing of girls in India.
The Hari Chopra Trust was founded by the late Dr. Hari Chopra, a physician and visionary committed to improving the lives of girls and women throughout India by providing educational opportunities and support. HCSA is particularly interested in supporting organizations that integrate girls’ education, training and livelihood with health. HCSA will provide unrestricted grants for program as well as organizational support.
[Images are illustrative in nature. Image1 source]