The highest pupil dropout rates in southern rural Rajasthan begin in 8 grade. I tried to understand the education system in the rural villages around Gogunda, Rajasthan. In most cases, girls would leave after they start menstruating and the boys would disengage starting to feel the pressure of earning and supporting their families. These were a few among many other reasons.
Within these remote schools, teachers only minutely touch upon the healthcare topics. Thus leaving behind very important discussions on tuberculosis, malnutrition, pneumonia, and anemia, all of which are highly prevalent in these areas.
Menstrual health is one of the most hush-hush topics. I facilitated an interactive workshop with women who were about 14 – 24 years old. Additionally, older women who were ASHAs and Anganwadi Workers were present too.
“We are asked to bathe outside the house at night, in the field when we menstruate” said one of the young women. “Don’t you think such a thing shouldn’t happen?” responded an ASHA.
We discussed the causes of vaginal discomfort that oftentimes lead to infections. This can be because the people mostly dry the wet period cloth in closed dark rooms, for no one to see. It was the start of, hopefully, many such open conversations between one woman and another.
In 2022, Basic Healthcare Services (BHS) initiated a ‘School Health Education’ program in rural areas of south Rajasthan. The initiative created a space where children were presented with the right information on health. This included information which was both on personal (hygiene, food habits, exercises) and community level (communicable and severe illnesses).
“These children have no interest. They don’t do as we say, they don’t come. Who would even like to teach here?” said one of the teachers as we had a friendly chat. And on my way out, a young girl slowly expressed, “Nobody has spoken to us like this, why do you? When will you come again?”
This program has evidently broken the belief that ‘children don’t want to learn’ or ‘they are too lazy’. An easy way for us to blame them for their disinterest in education.
When you respect children, engage with them, play with them, forgive them, and allow them to make mistakes, they come to you. They listen to you, and they follow what you teach them. Children and the youth respond to love, a principle that works universally. Fear only creates distance. And while it may get some of the tasks done, your entire relationship with them, their self-esteem, internal efficacy, and trust is compromised.
However, is designing and delivering efficient classes at these schools enough? Let’s take Raju* for example, a dear friend I made along the way. He was 14 at the time and came to school infrequently. He was quiet and distracted even when he was physically present. I learned a little bit about him. His father had recently passed away after failing to recover from Tuberculosis. He was the eldest of three brothers and two sisters. He knew he had to go to Ahmedabad on his uncle’s return from there. And he looked like he absolutely didn’t want to.
The areas in South Rajasthan are home to a large number of migrants. According to a survey conducted by BHS, 56% of families have at least 1 male member who has moved out for work, mostly to closer metropolitan cities like Ahmedabad, Surat, and Mumbai. Construction sites for apartment complexes and temples, restaurant jobs, and sculpture-making are popular roles for migrant men. Young boys are often a part of this lot. Some are kidnapped and sold at ages as young as 8 to join the labor force. The fortunate ones find their way back home.
Aajeevika Bureau once rescued a boy named Sohan*, aged 23 who was suffering from cognitive difficulties. He returned with his hands swollen and skin as thick as a bull’s. His skin looked pale and he looked weak, and lifeless. He told them how he was asked to join work at a restaurant in Gujarat and promised that his family would receive the pay which they never did. He used to from 7:00 AM to 3:00 AM. i.e. 19 hours at a stretch, with no holidays. This was his monotonous routine. All he did for those 19 hours was wash utensils. The washing soap had severe reactions to his skin. Sohan never complained and had no intention to lodge a First Information Report (FIR).
There are always underlying and deeper setbacks that restrict a child from receiving a chance at having a career. Sohan could be taken advantage of easily, and Raju had a family to feed. In Sohan’s case, the owners of the restaurant were pioneers of maximum exploitation, fueled by ultimate greed. For Raju, it was a misfortune.
Expecting special needs education/awareness to reach such remote areas in such a distant, unforeseeable future where Tuberculosis is still taking lives.
Health, education, and livelihoods, I see these three so intertwined that it is impossible to address one without acknowledging the other. So, how do we improve our education system in rural India, after all?
*Names changed to maintain confidentiality