Education for these children will be the greatest equalizer, both within and outside their villages
On a sunny morning, we sat on the podium of a house where the painting on the walls indicated a recent wedding in the family. The kitchen steamed on as kaki continued to make food and tea for us. Buffaloes and goats were herded past the house towards the forest. Men with slender bodies wrapped in white ‘dhoti‘ and wearing a ‘kurta‘ also walked down the lane to their own farms. Women as tall or taller than men covered their faces with an ‘odhni‘ and draped a bright ‘lehenga‘ with a shirt as blouse. They passed the house with multiple ‘matkas‘ stacked up on their head. The ‘charpai‘ was laid down on the ground to cover the mud flooring for us to sit on. One by one, many men, women and young girls joined us after they finished their morning work. As I predicted, the women sat in a huddle on one end and the men sat away from the charpai in a different direction. We had formed an awkward circle. If this imagery didn’t do it, once the meeting started, it was evident that there was a divide.
Talada is a small village at the edge of Ranthambhore National Park, adjacent to the Banas river. Here, people’s livelihood largely depends on agriculture and cattle like many other villages in the outskirts of Sawai Madhopur district of Rajasthan. People here grow their own food (Gehu, Bajra, Chilli, Tamatar, Pyaz, Amrood) have less or almost no access (especially women) to the city of Sawai Madhopur and live a life rich with customs and beliefs.
Javed Ji* conducts School Management Committee (SMC) meetings in several villages and this time it was in Talada. The generous and accommodative SMC head put down the chai next to all guests and sat down as the last one to join the meeting. Once the men and women gathered, women pulled up their odhnis to hide their faces. Javed Ji discussed about the functioning of the school, problems being faced and the active participation of committee as well as parents with the school. He explains the importance of education and its requirement. He also mentions how important schooling is, even for pursuing occupations in their context such as agriculture or working in forest department.
The formation of the SMCs was mandated in 2009 when the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act came in action. This was to ensure that the community and parents actively get involved in the functioning of the school.
After a while, men started moving away from the meeting as they had everyday work. The receding men changed the atmosphere of the conversation all together. Kavita*, one of the women there, quickly found the gap to quench her curiosity.
She shifted closer to me and asked “Kaha Su?” (where are you from?). Their blank expression was enough to gauge that they did not know what and where Kerala is. After a few more questions, they decided that I was from Bihar because of the type of Hindi I spoke. All the women tried different questions to know more about this new member who was suddenly a part of their lives. I had come with my own bag of questions to the doorstep of a tiny village that I did not know existed, before today. The curiosity of women and the freedom to do so, took over the conversation.
As we continued with the assistance of Javed Ji to translate, we got to know more about each other’s cultures, families, food and customs. They asked me questions that I would hear again and again from every single person I spoke to, throughout the month I spent here.
“Kitne Bhai Behen Hain?” (How many siblings do you have?)
“Bhai Kyun Nahi Hain” (Why do you not have any brother?)
“Byah Hui?” (Are you married?)
“Kyun na?” (Why have you not married yet?)
Sometimes, just a few words and moments can speak volumes about beliefs and customs of a place. In Talada, like most of India, there is a huge gender divide. Like any other patriarchal society, men are the head of the family, owners of the land, breadwinners and are given a better opportunity for education. It is a belief that women are dependent and born to be a part of somebody else’s family, which also means that every family must have at least one male child to lead and inherit ancestral wealth and property. Many families continue to have children till they have a boy and sometimes they keep producing children until enough boys are born to compensate for the number of girls. On the other hand, for most of these families who depend on farming, an occupation with various uncertain factors such as water availability, climate, soil quality etc., it is hard to cope with increasing number of mouths to feed.
Even though the system places men as head of the households, women are the backbone or support. All women in families with agricultural land, work on fields, as much as or more than men. They contribute more in household work but are said to be assisting their husband, son, father and/or brother.
This form of gender divide is not curtailed to the households but extends into the classrooms as well. Often boys are sent to private schools and taught until they can go to college, whereas if girls are sent to schools at all, they only study up to the grade that is available in the government schools in the village. Once they are of a certain age, many girls are married but they continue to stay at their own homes till they have the “maturity” to go to their Sasural’s (In-laws). This custom is as old as the villages themselves and will not change any time soon. That just means that long-term solutions are to be sought. Read: In the state of Rajasthan the male literacy rate in 2011 was 79% whereas for women it was at 48%
At Gramin Shiksha Kendra (GSK) this is exactly what we try to do. We work on awareness and simultaneous education for children irrespective of their differences. With the work that GSK has done in the past few years (since 2004), they have created a wave of change. The organization first began to spread awareness and provide education in localities of Sawai Madhopur. They began coming up with alternative and inclusive ways to educate. Uday Schools were started in a few villages to bring about this new form of education. These schools focused on contextual education for the community by balancing learning and unlearning when required. It has been a constant check and re-check of everything.
The process was arduous but the result, satisfactory. Now many young girls and boys have been able to reach goals that seemed too far away a few years ago. With the exposure and knowledge that they gained in Uday Schools, many girls have grown up to be confident young women who have taken charge. All they needed was a platform and they did the rest. They hold the same power as the boys of their age in all aspects. Now many of them speak up on the gender gap in their own societies and stand up for women of all ages and backgrounds. It is not only the girls but also the boys that find it important to stand up for their friends and classmates.
The holistic approach of Uday Community Schools has not only concentrated on empowering the girls but also on the boys to realize the gravity of the situation. All one has to do is light the torch and the rest of the relay is run by these strong, confident, empowered women and men who will be the future of these villages.
But just operating Uday schools was not enough. There were many more villages out there. So GSK thought of two ways to go about it:
- Methods taught in the Uday schools were taken to neighbouring government schools. The organization tried to create a hub and spokes model where the Uday Schools acted as the hub that provides assistance and information to improve the quality of education in the locality as a whole.
- They work with multiple villages such as Talada that have their own government schools and are too far from the Uday Schools for it to provide direct assistance. This is where Javed ji, and other field staff of GSK, work on ensuring the active participation of the community and parents in the education of their own children.
The meeting came to an end with a discussion on the importance of education and equal rights to women that only brought smiles to their faces. They loved the idea but could not contemplate the ideology. Talada has a long way to go but they have taken the first step in the right direction. Some women have started sending their daughters to the city for education higher than the 8th grade. Many parents visit the government school to ensure that their children are being taught and are also given the right nutrition. The rate of child marriages has reduced considerably in last decade. Even with these improvements, there is much to do. As I spent the last month in these villages inside the forested tiger reserve, understanding how far they have come, I kept thinking:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening – Robert Frost
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
*Names changed to protect identity