255 girls from Odisha who had dropped out of school completed their 10th standard education after nine months of remedial training and sat for their board exams. The results came out last week: 158 of them (62%) passed, with one even coming in the first division.
This is not big news in a country the size of India, and the only ones celebrating aside from the girls and their families was a small team gathered around a conference table at the headquarters of Pratham. I happened to be visiting a similar batch of girls in Chhattisgarh a day earlier, who will be taking their exams in mid-May. Here is what I saw of their determination and the barriers they are overcoming to get what most of us think of as our birthright and take completely for granted.
I grew up with a daily reminder that being born a girl in India in the early 20th century could be a raw deal. My grandmother lived with us and she was illiterate. Her parents were not poor, they simply saw no reason to educate their daughter. My grandmother was married at 13 and widowed at 25. which consigned her and her two children to a life of utter dependence on her in-laws. Transported to the US when her son (my father)moved there, she lived in a cocoon, secure in the family bosom but in a narrow world where her considerable intelligence was wasted on chewing over the family gossip and magnifying every slight.
It is still not easy for a girl to be educated and make her own life choices in today’s India, even as the country has gained wealth and power unimaginable to my grandmother’s generation. Leave aside issues of safety or employability where huge gender gaps exist. Even in something as gender neutral as educating the nation’s children, girls lag: only 40 Indian girls out of every 100 that begin primary school will complete 8th grade. This number, shocking as it is, masks even bigger gaps between urban and rural, and between middle and lower income families.
The reasons for dropping out of school are many and complex—one study cites 20 of them—but the end result is the same. An uneducated child faces a bleak future. The girls and women I met in Chhattisgarh had heartrending reasons for dropping out. Several did so to get married. Two lost their fathers and had to start earning a living to support the family. Yet all of them had made the decision to come back and finish 10th grade.
They did not make this decision by themselves. There was a small army of people pushing them forward. In the vanguard of this army is the Pratham community organizers, who go door-to-door to survey who is in school and if not, why not. When they find an older girl or woman dropout, they spend considerable time convincing them and their families to enroll in a nine-month program which includes daily study with an instructor in the village plus a monthly stay at a residential camp. The families have to commit to handling the girls’ chores while they go away for five days every month.
The camp has an administrator and three faculty members to provide instruction in Hindi, English and math. There is another group at Pratham headquarters that has taken apart the standard curriculum, applied “western” pedagogical methods to it, and painstakingly created new teaching and learning materials.
I ask the girls in Chhattisgarh what they plan to do after they graduate. Silence. Except for two government workers who need to pass 10th grade in order to be eligible for promotion, the rest have not dared to dream of an altered future.
My father, born to an illiterate mother, planned to drop out of school when he was 13 so that he could help out in the family business. The only one against this plan was an uncle who somehow saw his potential and moved heaven and earth to get him educated. My father in turn made sure that no effort or expense was spared to educate his four daughters, all of whom went to Ivy League universities in the US, and became financially independent. In two generations my family was able to rewrite the destiny for its girls. It will happen to you too, I tell the Chhattisgarh girls.
This is the drive behind Pratham and what motivates its 2,000 staff and 60,000 volunteers: the chance to recreate a new India in which every child has learnt well and has the means to become a productive, prosperous citizen. The 255 girls from Odisha are proof it can be done. Chhattisgarh will be close behind.
This article was first published on Pratham.